Editorials

Labor Commissioner Berry fails the state, workers

cliddy@newsobserver.com

North Carolina Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry, a Republican, has been in the partisan minority on the Council of State for most of her four terms with Democrats in control in the General Assembly. But the Republican takeover in the legislature in 2011 and the election of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2012 haven’t really changed things much for Berry.

She wasn’t doing her job when Democrats were in power, and she’s not doing it now. In a News & Observer report by Mandy Locke, a clear pattern emerges: Berry doesn’t see her mission as protecting workers; she sees it as protecting business, even when workers are getting shortchanged. Time and again, her department has fallen short on investigations of unpaid wages.

Confronted with companies that don’t pay the people who work for them, Berry’s department investigates, talks to a relatively small number of people and raises the flag of surrender in the cases of companies that have shut their doors with debts unpaid.

It’s difficult to collect from defunct companies, which seems to be Berry’s excuse. North Carolina desperately needs a law that would empower the state to collect unpaid wages from the personal assets of business owners who deliberately didn’t pay workers.

But Berry does have enforcement tools at her disposal, and if her department were more aggressive in pursuing complaints before companies went out of business, more people might get their wages due. But the department’s nine lawyers rarely go to court to fight for workers.

And when someone in the department, with the Wage and Hour Bureau, complained of the need for more help to enforce rules – and the problems in the bureau were reported by The News & Observer – that person was told he would be demoted.

There’s nothing complicated about what’s going on here. Berry, whose image is on every elevator in North Carolina (her department has oversight of inspections), has gained a certain amount of name recognition over the years. She has kept winning office. But the public, except for those workers whose problems have been ignored, doesn’t pay much attention to whether Berry is doing her job.

She’s not. And now, with Republicans in charge of the governor’s office and the General Assembly, where there is virtually no interest on the part of the majority in workers’ rights, Berry is able to simply sit tight. (Berry’s comfort with neglect will change in the 2016 election, when she will face her strongest challenger ever in former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker.)

With Berry, the problems go from workers not being paid for work performed to a commissioner being paid for duties unfulfilled. Both problems need to stop being tolerated and start being fixed.

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