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NC’s Labor Commish Has Filed Just FOUR Wage Theft Lawsuits in FIVE Years

It's all smiles for NC's  wage-hating, claim ignoring Labor Commissioner, Cherie Berry.

It’s all smiles for NC’s wage-hating, claim ignoring Labor Commissioner, Cherie Berry.

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The Charlotte News and Observer took a look at the North Carolina Department of Labor’s handling of wage theft claims and discovered troublesome inaction. The state’s workers, it appears, have little hope of retribution when unscrupulous employers exploit them. 

Under the leadership of Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, a Republican, the state of North Carolina has filed only four lawsuits against employers accused of wage theft in the past five years.  In the last fiscal year, the agency took no action on 2011 of 3694 wage theft claims. Those who did recoup wages were only able to do so because their employer voluntarily agreed to pay them back wages.  In those cases no employer was fined and no employer was charged with a crime.

Cherie Berry’s staunch pro-business stance made her an early favorite in the North Carolina Senate primary, which she eventually lost to ultra conservative Thom Tillis.  Her campaign took a hit when a workplace study was released showing her approach led to unnecessary worker deaths.  Add to the equation her stated goal of abolishing the minimum wage and the North Carolina worker protections picture is as bleak as it gets.

Creative Loafing Charlotte notes that safety outcomes in the state are even worse than publicized:

The study, by the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, says that many more North Carolina workers die on the job than the state is reporting - up to three times more - and that too many workers in the state are dying “needless deaths” as a result of poor safety enforcement. Apparently, Berry “fixes” the problem by simply underreporting the number of work-related fatalities. Not exactly the kind of thing on which to base a Senate run.

At times, Berry has been so blatantly pro-business - declaring that her job is to make things easier for companies to “do business” in North Carolina, and calling for an end of a statewide minimum wage - critics have openly wondered whether she even understands what her job entails.

Making things even worse for Berry is the fact that the council’s report is hardly the first time she’s been caught coming up short in doing the job of a normal labor commissioner.

In 2010, a U.S. Labor Dept. audit found that North Carolina largely ignored serious safety problems, handed out weak fines to violators, and mishandled whistleblower complaints

As a recent McClatchy series about wage theft revealed, misclassification alone costs the state of North Carolina $467 million each year in lost tax revenue.  The Berry era has not been kind to North Carolina workers.

More brutal bullet points from the Charlotte News and Observer:

Of the tens of thousands of workers’ complaints Berry’s office reports that it has reviewed since her election in 2000, attorneys for the agency have filed lawsuits on behalf of workers 36 times, according to information provided by the attorney general’s office, which represents the department in litigation.

•  Berry’s agency routinely directs workers cheated out of wages to hire their own lawyers and go to court to get their money, according to information provided by Berry’s office and interviews with plaintiffs’ attorneys.

•  If a company has shuttered or filed for bankruptcy, Berry’s investigators routinely close the case without substantiating the wage claim as valid, according to information provided by Berry’s agency.

•  Berry’s office has jurisdiction over roughly 168,000 companies in the state but does not conduct random checks on wage and hour practices, including those often triggered by companies misclassifying workers.

Henry Sasser, former deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Bureau, admitted that resources are limited but argued that taking employers to court would be prohibitive:

“Until people get hammered in court, none of this is going to change.  Your priorities are where you put your money. Until you put the money in and say we’re going to spend some money and litigate these cases, people will keep doing this.

Read this alarming deep dive in its entirety here.


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