State Politics

NC labor officials haven’t had worker safety advice from outside in five years

North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry has 11 citizens she can rely on for guidance about worker safety issues.

It’s been five years, though, since Berry and her team called them together for a meeting.

State lawmakers established the State Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health when they drafted state workplace safety laws in the 1970s. As commissioner, Berry appoints the members and must select from labor advocates, management representatives, a migrant labor expert and three others with knowledge of worker health and safety issues.

The law is clear: the council “shall hold no fewer than two meetings during each calendar year.”

“We just stopped having them altogether,” said Sexton Dale, a retired union representative who has sat on the council since the 1980s. “I was surprised they just stopped so abruptly... I don’t remember getting any formal announcement about them stopping.”

Dolores Quesenberry, a spokeswoman for Berry, said the agency stopped convening the advisory council to save money as the state faced budget constraints in 2010. She pointed to a memo from the Office of the State Budget and Management in December 2010 encouraging agencies to limit travel and training spending in 2010 and 2011. The labor department is required to reimburse travel expenses for council members.

Quesenberry called the suspension of meetings “simple and practical.”

A review of advisories from the state budget office shows no other requests to limit travel and training spending since the December 2010 memo. That limit applied only to fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

A report in Sunday’s News & Observer detailed how Berry’s office over the last decade has not been counting dozens of worker deaths in annual workplace fatality news releases. Though inspectors are limited by law on the type of workplace deaths they can investigate, the N&O showed that in some cases inspectors retreated when employers said that workplace safety regulations didn’t apply to their businesses.

Dale, the longest-serving member of the council, said this is the kind of topic council members should be meeting about and discussing.

“Back in the day, we reviewed these issues as they came up,” Dale said. Dale said the group met regularly as directed under former state Labor Commissioners John Brooks and Harry Payne. The group also met routinely in Berry’s early years as commissioner. Berry, a Republican, took office in 2001.

Even before Berry’s agency suspended the meetings in 2010, the regularity of the gatherings was spotty, records of past meetings show. The group met twice in 2007, once in 2008 and again in April 2010. In nearly nine years, that amounts to four meetings, not the 18 required by law.

Quesenberry said the labor department has relied on regular mailings to keep members of the advisory council informed on labor issues. Each member is supposed to receive the division’s quarterly report, which details such information as the number of workplace inspections.

Dale said he understands the need to be prudent with state dollars, especially as North Carolina faced steep budget shortfalls around 2010. He does think, though, that the agency could benefit from hearing perspectives of citizens invested in workplace safety issues.

Not all Labor Department travel stopped in 2010. According to minutes of the final advisory council meeting in 2010, Berry and four of her staff traveled to Charlotte in March 2010 for a ceremony celebrating the safe completion of the NASCAR Hall of Fame building.

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