(Raleigh, N.C.) —Superior Court Judge G. Bryan Collins ruled on Monday that the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL) must consider implementing rules that would protect workers from contracting COVID-19. The ruling punctuates a 10-month effort by civil rights groups to have COVID-19 workplace safety standards in place.
In October 2020, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, North Carolina Justice Center and Southern Poverty Law Center, petitioned NCDOL to issue COVID-19 workplace standards on behalf of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, N.C. State AFL-CIO, Western North Carolina Workers’ Center, the N.C. State Conference of the NAACP, Fight for $15 and a Union, and the Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County.
Former North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry rejected the petition. Although nearly 1,500 North Carolinians were testing positive daily for the coronavirus at the time, Berry falsely claimed that the virus had not yet proven to cause death or serious physical harm and did not qualify as an occupational hazard.
Following the denial, the groups filed suit, claiming NCDOL wrongfully denied their petition on both procedural and factual grounds. The civil rights groups noted in the lawsuit that, by the state’s own admission, there is a higher chance of workers’ exposure to COVID-19 in certain occupational settings. The groups also highlighted that nearly a third of workplace deaths in 2020 were related to COVID-19. The groups further argued that workers of color were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 infection in the workplace.
Judge Collins found that NCDOL’s outright refusal to consider the rulemaking petition that would require COVID-19 workplace standards, such as masks and social distancing, violated the state’s own rulemaking procedures and was unlawful.
The following are statements from groups involved in the case:
“NCDOL abdicated its legal and moral responsibility to protect the health and safety of North Carolina workers during the pandemic,” said Pilar Whitaker, an attorney with the Economic Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Judge Collins is restoring that responsibility and not a minute too soon. We know NCDOL’s failure has disproportionately hurt workers of color and now we can begin to right those wrongs.”
“This ruling is an important step to ensure the safety and wellbeing of workers, especially with the threat from the Delta variant growing every day,” said Julia Solórzano, a staff attorney with the SPLC. “But it is just a step. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the deep inequities essential workers on the front lines, who are often disproportionately Black and Brown and immigrant, face. We now all know that more must be done to address these inequities and must act.”
“Last fall, former Commissioner Berry refused to even consider adopting the critical workplace protections we were proposing,” said Clermont Ripley, Co-Director of the NC Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project. “We hope that during his first year in office Commissioner Dobson will take NCDOL’s obligation to ensure every North Carolinian has a safe and healthy workplace more seriously when he reconsiders these critical protections.”
Read the judge’s order here.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of voting rights, criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and hate crimes. For more information, please visit https://lawyerscommittee.org.
North Carolina Justice Center – The North Carolina Justice Center is a progressive research and advocacy organization, whose mission is to eliminate poverty in North Carolina by ensuring that every household in the state has access to the resources, services, and fair treatment it needs to achieve economic security.
Southern Poverty Law Center – The Southern Poverty Law Center is a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people. For more information, visit www.splcenter.org.