'The Elevator Queen' fails to protect workers
As Cherie Berry, the Labor Commissioner of North Carolina, gears up for election season next year her dubious record has come under renewed scrutiny. Despite taking pride in her role of insuring worker safety, Berry has done little to protect their compensation. Over the past three years, the News & Observer discovered that companies often file workers who should be classified as employees as contractors. This misclassification leads to workers missing out on overtime pay. But, when asked about this and other scandals that have occurred during her 15 year tenure, Berry continuously states that she will not change the way she approaches the work.
During the last three years, The News & Observer exposed a massive labor scheme in which companies gain a competitive edge by treating workers who should be employees as contractors. The practice, called misclassification, robs workers of protections and costs at least $467 million annually in state and federal tax revenue. As other state leaders worked on the issue, Berry said she had little or no role and kept her distance.
And when workers try to collect checks their bosses failed to pay, Berry’s team has provided little help. The Labor Department rarely takes employers to court, closing the books when an employer says he can’t or won’t pay.
Though Berry takes pride in her track record on worker safety, her department has often been distant from advocates for workers. A safety advisory board established by law – which included both labor and business interests – was suspended for nearly five years, despite a state law requiring regular meetings. It met again in July after an N&O story.
At 68, Berry is poised to fight to keep her $125,676-a-year position next year, saying she’s done an impressive job. She will likely face former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, a Democrat.
A complaint led state safety inspectors to the spark plug factory two years later. In 1999, an employee’s stomach was punctured by a piece of machinery she said was operated without a safety guard, according to the lawyer who represented the injured woman in a workers’ compensation claim. By the time inspectors visited in February 2000, Berry was running for labor commissioner, and her husband urged the inspectors to wait to inspect the plant until his wife could arrive.
Business interests have helped Berry maintain her position. Of the more than $800,000 she has raised for her campaigns, more than a third has come from three industries she encounters often in health and safety inspections: construction, manufacturing and agribusiness.
Berry’s department is sometimes seen as an island. She meets infrequently with her state government counterparts, according to a review of her 2014 calendar.
In 2012, when Gov. Bev Perdue convened a task force of state leaders to examine companies illegally treating workers as contractors, Berry didn’t attend, sending her staff instead.
Her counterparts – state insurance commissioner, secretary of state, chairwoman of the Industrial Commission and head of the Division of Employment Security – all attended.