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News & Observer, Political Figures Lash Out at NC Labor Commish Over Wage Theft, Misclassification



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The Charlotte News & Observer ran a feature recently titled, “The Reluctant Regulator,” which looked into the office of North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry.  If the name sounds familiar, it may be because we have covered her and her office’s unwillingness to help the state’s workers in the past.  In November of 2014 it was discovered that her office had filed just four wage theft lawsuits in the previous five years.  This despite the fact that in 2011 alone 3,694 North Carolinians came forward with claims of wage theft.  In April of 2015, an investigative report accused her office of cooking the workplace fatality books and in August of 2015 the North Carolina legislature was forced to try new legislation concerning employee misclassification stemmingn from her office’s shortcomings.  

Partially out of political ideology and partially due to ineptitude, Berry refuses to serve the workers of North Carolina.  This bucks the trend in a region where Kentucky labor officials now place a lien against companies unwilling to pay back wages. Arkansas’ and Tennessee’s labor departments are no bastions of workers rights and still outperform the Berry-led Tar Heel state.

Berry has the power to fight for workers.  She can take employers to court.  She can seek restraining orders against companies and order them to pay back wages.  She just doesn’t.  Since she took office in 2000, Berry’s office has sued companies for back wages 35 times, an average of 2.5 times a year.

The News & Observer took a look at 2014 stats:

For claims that investigators were fully able to investigate and validate for 1,521 workers, roughly 40 percent of the workers didn’t get the help they requested. Investigators did not collect $1 million in wages they determined were owed to 617 workers.

That amount was nearly half of the money investigators found was due. Those wages were, in effect, stolen from workers who count on each paycheck to pay bills and buy food.

Berry says she is trying, but it is hard to believe: “Is it always possible to collect?,” she asks. “No. Do we try our best to collect it? Yes.”

Some politicians in North Carolina are unsure, too.  In September, former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker announced that he was running for Labor Commissioner against Berry.  In his announcement, he cited the epidemic of wage theft and worker misclassification that Berry has overseen. From his press conference:

“The North Carolina labor department needs to do a better job than it’s doing right now particularly as to worker safety, doing something about the misclassification of employees as independent contractors, and finally seeing to it that employees who work are paid the wages that are owed.”

In the News & Observer piece, former State Rep. Rick Glazier, who resigned in September to lead the North Carolina Justice Center, said of Berry:

“I am very concerned that there is little substantive work being done to enforce the wage and safety and health statutes in the state in an aggressive manner by the current Department of Labor.  I think the department probably does the minimum required by the law.”

Read the in-depth piece in its entirety here.


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