RALEIGH — The state agency in charge of overseeing workplace safety is failing to ensure proper living conditions are provided to thousands of migrant and seasonal farm workers, according to a federal complaint filed by Legal Aid of North Carolina.
The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, says that some poultry plant workers and fieldhands live in overcrowded, rundown temporary camps with unsanitary cooking and bathroom facilities. The complaint says the North Carolina Department of Labor's Agricultural Safety and Health Division is failing to address the problem.
"Despite numerous housing and field safety violations, federal and state audits, as well as independent research, have determined that NCDOL simply fails to enforce the law," a statement released Wednesday by Legal Aid said.
Group: No enforcement
The group faults the state agency for being inconsistent in determining the severity of violations and in deciding when to issue penalties to employers.
The complaint also says the state is too willing to reduce the size of monetary fines assessed on employers, even in cases where serious harm was a possibility or when employers were aware of a problem and did nothing to fix it.
"We're not for large fines for their own sake, but we think fines help enforce the law," said Mary Lee Hall, managing attorney for Legal Aid's farm worker unit. "It should be more expensive to violate the law than to comply with it."
The state Department of Labor will wait until it hears from its federal counterpart before commenting on Legal Aid's allegations, agency spokeswoman DoloresQuesenberry said.
But Quesenberry said the labor department has asked the group in the past to substantiate its claims about farm workers living in substandard conditions, without much of a response.
"Instead of playing politics, we need to find solutions and help the hard-working agricultural community in our state," she said.
The state has responded previously to federal scrutiny of the way it handles penalties for employers in any industry who break health and safety laws.
In employers' defense
In a report on the state's overall work-safety policies last year, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommended that the labor department review the way it calculates fines for violations, a recommendation the state rejected.
"The state's experience, based on nearly 40 years of working with employers, is that most would not intentionally violate the law or act indifferently to its requirements," the state agency's response reads. "The employers in North Carolina do not need to be shamed but rather assisted in their efforts to provide a safe and healthful place of employment."
But Legal Aid's complaint says state inspectors miss the farm camps with the worst offenses, focusing instead on the inspection of living quarters before workers arrive, when there are likely to be fewer problems.
The group estimates that of roughly 4,000 camps in 2009, only 55 were inspected after workers arrived.