RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Some in North Carolina worked from home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many others didn’t have that choice. Essential workers in factories, health care, grocery stores, and agriculture continued to labor at their job sites.
“Although in October we were already seven months into the pandemic, there were still no enforceable worker protections in North Carolina related to COVID. Workers did not feel safe at work and there was nothing they could do about it,” said attorney Clermont Ripley in virtual Wake County Superior Court Thursday.
Ripley is one of several attorneys representing a number of North Carolina labor organizations. He told presiding Judge George Collins that there were 91 workplace deaths in 2020 and 26 of those were related to COVID-19 exposure in the workplace.
The lawsuit argues the North Carolina Department of Labor, and then-Commissioner Cherie Berry, denied a petition to issue temporary emergency rules. The rules would have established protocols to help keep people from catching COVID-19 at work.
“The answer is because it would not serve the purpose for which it is intended,” said Victoria Voight, Special Deputy Attorney General representing NCDOL.
Voight said emergency temporary rules would exceed statutory authority.
“Labor would have immediately been sued and it would have lost. It would have engendered the animosity of the employers and the animosity of the general assembly,” Voight said.
NCDOL did inspect meatpacking plants that had COVID-19 outbreaks, but workers do not believe that was enough. They claim much of what was needed was left up to the employees.
“They were providing protective equipment when employers failed to do so, providing food and financial support when workers had to be out of work for a while due to COVID. They helped pay for funeral expenses and hospital expenses,” Ripley said.
Workers also worry about any potential surge in infection and future pandemics without rules to protect them.
The judge will now review the arguments from both sides and possibly rule later this month.