Groups call on NCDOL to put end to dangerous conditions and adopt an emergency rule immediately
RALEIGH (October 12, 2020) – Workers’ rights advocates from across North Carolina are petitioning the North Carolina Department of Labor to adopt a rule that would protect workers during the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis. The groups are calling on NCDOL to put an end to dangerous conditions, saying that the current voluntary guidance for workplaces is insufficient in protecting workers who are all too often on the frontlines of the pandemic.
North Carolina workers from all industries, age groups, and across racial and ethnic lines are not safe at work due to the lack of enforceable COVID-19 workplace requirements, the petition reads. Since the beginning of the pandemic, NCDOL has received and closed roughly 1,000 complaints from workers who report their employers are not taking adequate precautions to protect them from COVID-19. In all but a handful of cases, NCDOL has done nothing more than send the employer a letter telling them about the guidance for employers.
“Each day, workers are at risk of contracting COVID-19 because their employers refuse to enforce social distancing guidelines or provide proper protective equipment,” said MaryBe McMillan, President of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO. “The state Department of Labor needs to step up immediately, adopt the proposed rule, and take aggressive action against employers who put their workers at risk. To do any less is a complete abdication of the department’s duty to protect the health and safety of our state’s workers.”
The petition is submitted by the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, North Carolina State AFL-CIO, NC Raise Up/Fight for $15 and a Union, The Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County/El Vinculo Hispano, the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP, and the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center—all organizations seeking to protect and advance the rights of North Carolina workers to a safe and healthy working environment. Since the onset of the pandemic, these groups have assisted workers with filing complaints, led calls for action by state and federal leaders, held press conferences, and more, all while mourning the deaths of workers who lost their lives to COVID-19.
“To issue only guidance, rather than an enforceable rule, ignores the inherent power imbalance between agricultural workers and their employers,” said Lariza Garzon, Executive Director of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry. “Farmworkers tell us they are scared because they know the virus is dangerous, but they cannot afford to miss work or risk losing their jobs if they report symptoms.”
NCDOL’s purpose is to issue and enforce workplace protections, hold employers accountable, and investigate complaints of unsafe work practices. Petitioners explain that, despite the clear dangers to the health and safety of employees posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, NCDOL has not adopted or amended health and safety standards to protect North Carolinians who are working in unsafe conditions to keep the state’s economy running.
“We have spoken with dozens of workers who are worried about their health and safety. Many contracted COVID-19 after exposure at work and, consequently, spread the virus to their family and community,” said Ilana Dubester, Executive Director of The Hispanic Liaison. “Meat and poultry processing plants are the source of thousands of infections and a culprit in the spread of COVID-19 in North Carolina. These workers, deemed essential, are being treated as expendable by their employers and by our state officials. It is simply not enough to issue guidelines or recommendations. Essential workers need the protection of enforceable rules at their workplaces, and their complaints must be investigated and acted upon by the NCDOL.”
Workers in processing plants have often been forced to work without adequate personal protective equipment, in crowded and poorly ventilated conditions, and without wellness checks. Most do not have paid sick time, adequate healthcare or insurance, and after years earning low wages, they have little reserves to enable them to leave steady employment.
“Since the beginning of this pandemic, workers across North Carolina, especially workers of color in food systems industries like meat and poultry processing, have risked their lives on a daily basis for the sake of our economy,” said Hunter Ogletree with the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center. “This rule will ensure that workers receive the protections they deserve.”
“The Department of Labor’s lack of adequate COVID safety measures has had a discriminatory racial impact. People of color are overrepresented in the meat processing, home health care, personal care, and foodservice industries,” said Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the NC NAACP. “Action to protect our vital and vulnerable workers is long overdue.”
The petitioners are represented by the North Carolina Justice Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“When someone at my store contracted COVID-19, my coworkers and I demanded our store get a professional deep cleaning. We filed health and safety complaints, and our entire store even went on strike to try to get some basic protections,” said Jamila Allen, a fast-food worker at Freddy’s Frozen Custard and a member of NC Raise Up/ Fight for $15 and a Union. “But without a mandate from our state government, employers like mine will put profit above workers’ safety every time. We need the NC Department of Labor to actually enforce health and safety standards for essential workers.”
The Episcopal Farmworker Ministry seeks to minister to farmworkers through direct services, development and support of programs that work towards the empowerment of farmworkers, and by advocating for systemic change of agricultural policy at local and state levels. Their mission is to respond to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families. During the pandemic, EFWM has served its community by providing food, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, and mental health services to agricultural workers. In addition, they have provided direct financial support to agricultural workers impacted by COVID-19, including payments to workers who did not get paid for time they were required to quarantine, workers who lost their jobs or had their hours reduced, and payments to relatives of workers who have been hospitalized or died as a result of contracting COVID-19 at work.
NC Raise Up believes that people who work hard for a living should make enough to support themselves, their families, and their neighborhood and should be treated with dignity and respect. They advocate for just compensation and dignified treatment for fast-food workers and other low-wage workers. NC Raise Up has been helping members file complaints with NCDOL about the lack of COVID precautions taken by fast-food employers. Members have complained that when coworkers get sick, they are not informed, and their workplaces are not adequately cleaned.
The NC State AFL-CIO is the largest association of unions of working people in North Carolina, representing over a hundred thousand members. They work together for good jobs, safe workplaces, workers’ rights, consumer protections, and quality public services on behalf of ALL working people. Since the start of the pandemic, the NC AFL-CIO has been calling for emergency standards to protect essential workers.
The Western North Carolina Workers’ Center builds power among immigrant workers in western North Carolina through education, organizing, and direct action to promote worker justice. They have been in continuous communication with workers about their concerns about working during a pandemic through their worker leadership circles. They have also distributed $118,000 in financial support to immigrant workers across western North Carolina, including to the families of three workers who died after contracting COVID-19 at the local poultry processing plant, Case Farms.
El Vinculo Hispano’s clients work in food processing, including at Mountaire, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson poultry processing plants, as well as in the service and construction industry. Due to the working conditions in these industries, their clients are at an increased risk for contracting COVDI-19 at work. Hundreds of poultry workers and their family members in the region served by EVH (Chatham, Lee, Alamance, and Randolph counties) have been infected and a few have died from COVID-19.
The NC-NAACP is North Carolina’s branch of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. It is the second-largest state conference of the NAACP in the United States. For over 70 years, NC-NAACP has pursued its mission to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and discrimination. The organization has followed a variety of strategies to carry out this goal, including litigation and direct advocacy on behalf of workers’ rights and economic justice.
FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT Clermont Ripley, Co-Director of the Workers’ Rights Project at the NC Justice Center, firstname.lastname@example.org; Dariely Rodriguez, Director of the Economic Justice Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, DRodriguez@lawyerscommittee.org; Don Owens, Director of Communications, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, email@example.com