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State Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry says COVID-19 is not a workplace hazard

State labor commissioner says COVID-19 isn't a workplace hazard
State labor commissioner says COVID-19 isn't a workplace hazard(WRAL)
Published: Dec. 8, 2020 at 9:25 PM EST
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RALEIGH, N.C. (WRAL) -Data shows workplaces in North Carolina have spawned more than 300 clusters of coronavirus infections so far, infecting thousands of people. Meat processing and manufacturing plants and first responders have been especially hard hit.

North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry recently ruled that COVID-19 isn’t a workplace hazard, so no rules are needed to protect workers.

“While I am not dismissing the tragic deaths that have occurred as a result of this virus, statistically, the virus has not been proven likely to cause death or serious physical harm from the perspective of an occupational hazard,” Berry wrote last month to several workers’ advocates who called for an emergency protections during the pandemic.

“It’s just so mind-boggling,” said MaryBe McMillan, president of the state AFL-CIO, who was among those pressing for extra protections. “I would say to her, ‘Tell that to the nurses, the grocery clerks, the farm workers, the meat processors who’ve gotten sick. Tell that to the families of workers who have died.”

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor said Berry was unavailable on Tuesday to explain her ruling.

Latino workers’ advocate Ilana Dubester said it’s contrary to fact.

“Absolutely, the data doesn’t support that in North Carolina or other parts of the country,” said Dubester, founder and executive director of The Hispanic Liaison in Siler City. “There have been plants that have had to shut down because of COVID outbreaks.”

Meat processing plants, which have a high percentage of Latino workers, have been linked to more than 4,100 coronavirus cases in North Carolina so far.

“Their families were getting sick. We had entire families down to babies sick with COVID related to the plant,” Dubester said.

Berry told advocates in her letter that the state has been and will continue to provide guidance to employers to limit the spread of the virus.

“This virus is everywhere,” she wrote. “Implementing more regulations will not eradicate the virus, and it will not eliminate the fear of employees of contracting COVID-19. However, I strongly believe that working together to educate both employees and employers as to the best practices to mitigate the spread of the virus is the best way of addressing this pandemic.”

Without state rules or enforcement, however, there’s no way to know whether employers are following the guidelines, Dubester said.

“Recommendations aren’t good enough,,” she said. “This is why we have labor laws, and this needs to be part of a labor law.”

Berry, who has headed the Labor Department for two decades, is retiring at the end of the year. Incoming commissioner Josh Dobson declined to comment on the issue Tuesday aside from saying that he looks forward to working with and listening to all stakeholders to try to find a path forward to keep workers safe.

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