Group disagrees with NC official’s decision about employers protecting workers from COVID-19

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Worker advocacy groups say they’ll go to court in Wake County this week after the North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry declined to adopt new rules that would require employers to take steps to protect workers from COVID-19. 

Clermont Ripley, an attorney and co-director of the Workers’ Rights Project, said some of the requirements the groups are seeking include: requiring social distancing at work, space in breakrooms, screenings and health checks of employees, notifications to workers when someone is sick and when to isolate or quarantine. 

“All of these things are consistently part of recommendations from the CDC, but they are just guidelines and they’re not enforceable in the workplace,” she said. 

In a letter Nov. 9, Berry highlighted educational efforts her agency has undertaken with employers but resisted “aggressive regulatory actions.”  

In the letter, she also writes, “A state agency cannot responsibly adopt a rule about a disease about which the medical community knows so little, especially regarding its transmission, how it affects different populations, and the long-term effects.” 

Ripley said that statement contradicts what experts have learned about COVID-19 in the months since the pandemic began. 

“I think it was irresponsible of her to say that. It’s perpetuating this narrative that we don’t need to take COVID seriously and we don’t know anything about it. And, that’s just not true,” she said. “The guidance has been consistent for a long time that there are things you can do to protect yourself and others, like wearing a mask, like having enough distance.” 

A spokesperson for the Department of Labor declined a CBS 17 request for an interview and said that Berry’s letter “speaks for itself.” 

“While I am not dismissing the tragic deaths that have occurred as a result of this virus, statistically, the virus has not been proven likely to cause death or serious physical harm from the perspective of an occupational hazard,” Berry writes. “Most of these deaths are people over the age of 65; generally, this age group is no longer active in the workforce.”  

Berry did not run for re-election this year. Republican Josh Dobson will take over as labor commissioner in January after winning the November election. 

According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, there have been 288 COVID-19 clusters reported in workplace settings out of 925 total clusters statewide.  

Ripley said her group and others will take their case to a Wake County judge by Wednesday to try to compel the Dept. of Labor to continue the rule-making process.

She said they also plan to reach out to federal regulators and to try continue working with the department of labor once Dobson takes over as commissioner. 

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