Other voices: NC is dead last for workers

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 6, 2021

As it turns out, the home of Andy Griffith, John Coltrane and the best barbecue in the world is not the kindest place to workers.

In fact, North Carolina ranks dead-last in the nation, according to a new report that compares every state, plus Washington, D.C, and Puerto Rico.

As in rock-bottom. Better than none. The lowest card in the deck.

The report, by the nonprofit Oxfam America, based the ratings on state policy as it affects wages, worker protections and the right to organize.

Oxfam says North Carolina ranks 52nd simply because it invests too little in its workers.

We’re not alone in the cellar. States in the South generally fared poorly in the rankings, with the exception of Virginia, which placed 23rd.

One rung above North Carolina was Georgia (No. 51); then came Mississippi (50th), Alabama (49th) and South Carolina (48th).

The reactions, predictably, have fallen along partisan lines.

The office of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, generally agreed with the findings. But the office of the most powerful politician in the state dismissed the report as shallow and agenda-driven.

“This left-wing advocacy group that most people have never heard of simply doesn’t like the policies that North Carolina Republicans have adopted,” said Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican.

“There’s no rigorous statistical analysis here,” Ryan said in an email to The (Raleigh) News & Observer. “They’re giving high scores to laws they like and low scores to laws they don’t like, which is probably why just about every Democratic-run state has a high score and every Republican-run state has a low score.”

Ryan’s right on at least one count: Oxfam does lean to the left. Founded in Britain, the coalition of charities fights poverty and advocates for workers.

But facts are neither partisan nor ideological. And, as they say, the proof is in the pudding:

North Carolina’s minimum wage is a paltry $7.25 an hour, which is only 23.2% of what it takes to support a family of four. And which does not apply to farmworkers.

By state law local governments cannot set higher minimum wages.

No laws in North Carolina protect workers from sexual harassment.

There is no requirement for paid family leave in North Carolina.

There are few state protections against sexual harassment.

And if you should lose your job here, North Carolina offers some of the stingiest and cruelest unemployment benefits in the nation.

Then there is the state Department of Labor, which has established a well-earned reputation over the years as more employer-friendly than employee-friendly.

During longtime Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry’s last year in office in 2020, 91 North Carolina workers died while on the job, the highest total in a decade.

Berry also famously declared that the COVID-19 pandemic did not constitute a workplace hazard.

“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 to worker advocates who had asked her for emergency protections during the outbreak.

At the time, in December 2020, more than 300 clusters of coronavirus infections in North Carolina workplaces had infected thousands of employees, especially first responders and poultry- and meat-processing plant workers.

Even as GOP leaders are “shocked, shocked” that anyone would find fault with working conditions in the state, many workers are voting with their feet.

There is a shortage of nurses, teachers, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, construction workers, restaurant workers, even after federal COVID unemployment benefits were cut.

Call these Americans lazy if you will, but the coronavirus appears to have forced a reckoning on workplaces and pay.

Many workers simply are not willing go back to the jobs they left … or that left them.

At least not under the same circumstances.

We’re guessing that most people merely want what all of us want: a decent wage for a decent day’s work in a safe environment.

So, if we were legislators, we’d reconsider blaming the messenger.

We’d also reconsider the assumption that being worker-friendly necessarily means you must be anti-business.

It could only benefit the job climate in North Carolina if the state became known as a more nurturing and supportive environment for both business and workers.

You certainly don’t have to choose sides.

The upshot: Like it or not, Oxfam has a point.

North Carolina can do better. And North Carolina should do better.

That’s something our leaders in Raleigh should chew on the next time they’re out to lunch, and can’t find a waiter to serve them.

— Winston-Salem Journal