About two dozen people marched on Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry’s office on Tuesday, using a deadly construction collapse as a call for action.
“Today, we do what we do in the labor movement. We mourn the dead and fight for the living,” said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer for the N.C. State AFL-CIO.
The march began in the shadow of the Charter Square building, where three construction workers died when a work platform fell to the ground last month. The event marked Workers’ Memorial Day, which coincides with the anniversary of the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970.
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Speakers at the event did not directly tie the men’s deaths to any shortcoming of the Department of Labor, instead criticizing the department’s method of publishing statistics about deaths, and calling on the state to prevent employers from improperly classifying full-time employees as contractors, among other concerns.
A state investigation into the fatal collapse is ongoing. Among other concerns, it highlighted the lack of specific rules for some elevated work platforms in North Carolina.
The event amounted to an early push against Berry, a Republican who is on the ballot next November. Overhead, workers installed the last details on Charter Square’s blue glass walls.
The marchers then headed up Fayetteville Street, accompanied by a troupe of reporters and cameras, to the labor department office just north of the State Capitol.
There they squeezed into a front room and made small talk with a receptionist. Eventually, they handed a thick stack of paper cards to Berry’s chief of staff, Art Britt.
“Every child should have their Mom or Dad come home at night,” read one handwritten message from Joseph Greaser of Fuquay-Varina.
The group’s specific criticisms, as outlined in the letters to Berry, were linked to The News & Observer’s recent investigations into labor department practices.
Among other findings, the newspaper reported that annual state reports on worker deaths excluded dozens of cases, such as those involving self-employed people and employees of small farms, and those deaths investigated by the federal instead of the state government.
Britt, the labor chief of staff, said the department provided a link to the fuller federal numbers on its website. However, they are not mentioned in the written releases that often guide media coverage.
Those statistics are beyond the department’s jurisdiction and are released on a different schedule than the state’s own numbers, he said.
“There’s never been an effort to suppress those numbers,” he said. The department would entertain suggestions for a new approach, he said.
He also acknowledged that the department had not convened an advisory council on worker safety in five years, while state law requires meetings twice annually. The department was trying to save money during tough budget years, and has stayed in touch via email with the citizens on the advisory panel, he said.
The families of the men killed and injured in the construction collapse, meanwhile, face the challenge of life without fathers and husbands.
“They are having a hard time. The reality for the immigrant community. You just live day by day,” said Marisol Silva, who is raising money for the families at www.gofundme.com/raleighworkers.
Some of the men lacked life and health insurance, she said. The youngest of their children was only five months old at the time of the collapse, Silva said.
Those killed were Anderson Antones de Almeida, 33, and Jose Erasmo Hernandez, 41, both of Durham, and Jose Luis Lopez-Ramirez, 33, of Clinton. Elmer Guevara, 53, of Durham survived but was severely injured.