State Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry just isn't doing her job

Cherie Berry’s idea of helping North Carolina businesses do right by their workers is to ask them politely and avoid confrontation. That’s always been a curious attitude on the part of Berry, a Republican elected to her post in 2000 and re-elected three times.

A more apt title for her job, given the way she’s handled it, would be “Business Commissioner,” which no doubt suits the business community just fine. If a business, or businesses, believe they can treat workers however they like without fear of being pursued by the Labor Department, guess what? Many workers don’t get treated very well.

A News & Observer and Charlotte Observer series in September exposed one aspect of the way businesses mistreat workers. “Contract to Cheat” showed that more than a third of the state’s construction workers were classified as independent contractors rather than employees, as the law requires. That saves businesses money in areas such as health insurance and paymentt toward unemployment insurance and Social Security. And it leaves workers unprotected in terms of fighting employers who mistreat them.

This past Sunday, The N&O’s Mandy Locke explored how the Labor Department, which is supposed to protect workers, doesn’t.

Thousands of workers in the state have to fight to get wages they’re due but haven’t been paid. In some cases, those workers may be immigrants who came to the country illegally. In other cases, they may be part-time workers. Employers, no doubt knowing that they’ve nothing to fear from Commissioner Berry, just simply don’t pay some of these people.

That should trigger a vehement response from the commissioner’s office. But Berry’s attitude clearly is that she’d prefer if workers so wronged just fought the fight themselves, getting lawyers and taking their scofflaw employers to court. The problem with that is that workers usually lack the resources to wage a legal fight. l

The Labor Department, for its part, rarely pursues wrongdoers.

There have been tens of thousands of workers’ complaints filed with Berry’s office since her election. Attorneys for the agency have filed suit 36 times. In addition, if a company closes or files for bankruptcy, Berry’s office routinely closes any cases regarding unpaid wages. The office also doesn’t conduct random checks on wage and hour practices, even though that would clearly be a deterrent to wrongdoers or potential wrongdoers.

The Department of Labor isn’t doing its job for the working people of this state. Commissioner Berry is ultimately responsible, and if she has no interest in workers’ rights then she is in the wrong job, period.

Some fault may lie with the state’s failure to invest enough money in the agency to provide enforcement personnel, but that’s clearly a case the commissioner would have to make to lawmakers. Berrie’s lack of interest in helping unpaid workers shows she’s unlikely to seek more resources to defend their rights. She also has no interest in public comment, repeatedly refusing to speak with The N&O.

Surely employers that do treat workers fairly should be as upset with Berry as are the workers she disdains when it comes to getting them their fair wages. After all, good employers pay decent wages and provide benefits because they think such things are right, and smart for businesses that want to maintain quality production and service for customers.

But too many workers go unpaid. And the Labor Commissioner’s job goes undone.