Barry Saunders

Saunders: The labor commissioner’s insufficient concern

OK, who besides me – every time you step into an elevator and see the name of N.C.’s labor commissioner on that inspection certificate – starts singing “Sherry, Sherry baby” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons?

Labor chief Cherie Berry’s name has a certain musicality to it. Too bad that, for some employees of companies getting fat suckling at the state’s teat, that music has all of the gaiety of a funeral dirge to the poorhouse.

A heartbreaking series in The N&O reports on employees at facilities with lucrative state contracts who have not been paid, and Berry’s response has been to haughtily dismiss the cases – of which she’s been aware for years – as “bugaboos.”

Bug-a-this.

The employees who’ve dedicated their lives to caring for people with special needs are already poorly compensated, compared to the importance of their work, yet their exploitation is so cavalierly dismissed by someone whose job is to ensure that they are treated fairly?

Dang. The people in reporter Mandy Locke’s Monday story who had their lives upended, their possessions repossessed, should’ve merely told their creditors that it was just a misunderstanding, a bugaboo, and can I still take these here groceries and pay you when the bugaboo is cleared up?

The labor commissioner is one of those elected positions that few people study and many probably vote for or against based on inconsequential criteria – “She looks like my second-grade teacher” or “He reminds me of my second ex-husband.”

After this, a more fitting criterion would be “Does she care more about workers or their bosses?”

In this case, it’s apparent.

Can you imagine Berry’s response if the situation were reversed, if a bunch of employees were ripping off the state by getting paid for work they didn’t do?

You can bet her underlings wouldn’t let things slide if they knocked on a door and no one answered.

That, according to our story, is what happened in at least one instance. An investigator contacted Tametka Blount Pittman in Raleigh to find out why four of her employees hadn’t been paid. According to our story, Pittman told the investigator that she hadn’t been paid and hung up the phone on him. When he visited her day care for developmentally delayed children, no one answered the door so he simply split.

Holy mackerel! That’s all it takes to get the state to close the door on your case – to not open the door?

I asked Rob Schofield, director of research and policy development for NC Policy Watch, if he were surprised that Berry seems – let’s see now, what’s a good word for it? – indifferent to the plight of workers who’ve been ripped off.

He wasn’t, at least not very.

“What’s really more surprising is that she’s been able to get away with it for 15 years,” Schofield said Monday.

Schofield, as far back as 2008, criticized what he called Berry’s “minimalist” approach to enforcing labor laws. “She’s never really pretended to be terribly interested in the well-being of state workers and yet, for some weird reason, it’s never provoked much outrage among the general public.

“Maybe it’s because the labor commissioner,” he said, “is such an obscure job that people don’t even think about.”

Or maybe it’s because people who see her name on the ballot go, “Hmmm, where have I seen that name before?”

And then start singing “Sherry, Sherry baby.”

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