RALEIGH – Workers’ rights advocates across North Carolina are petitioning the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL) to adopt rules protecting workers from future public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. The groups are calling on NCDOL to put into place health and safety standards to protect North Carolina workers from airborne infectious diseases — a step NCDOL has yet to take nearly three years into the pandemic.
As we continue to learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on frontline workers — particularly to Black and Latinx people who died at disproportionately high rates — the petitioners ask NCDOL to require employers to develop plans to protect their workforce when an airborne infectious disease is declared to be a public health emergency.
“The NC NAACP State Conference supports the rights of all workers to have safe and adequate working conditions regardless of their immigration status, race, gender, class or ability,” said President Deborah Dicks Maxwell. “Furthermore, we stand in solidarity with other organizations represented in this petition demanding the DOL take necessary action to hold all employers across NC accountable to swift implementation of these health and safety measures to ensure that People of Color in North Carolina who work in these industries are protected from any future harms due to negligence of the employers.”
The first proposed rule outlines protections and procedures employers should address in a plan to be implemented should a future airborne infectious disease become a public health emergency. Employers would tailor the plans to their worksites' needs and consider protections related to social distancing, ventilation, cleaning, symptom screening, and more.
The second of the proposed rules would safeguard migrant workers, their families and employers, and all who come into contact with them during a public health emergency due to an airborne infectious disease. Some of the additional safety measures proposed in the migrant worker petition include providing face masks and hygiene supplies to those using shared housing and vehicles, expanding or rearranging sleeping quarters, and improving ventilation in shared spaces.
“Migrant workers are at disproportionately high risk for airborne infectious disease because they are housed in crowded communal situations. It is critical that employers take measures to protect them and the surrounding community during times of a public health emergency,” said Carol Brooke, senior staff attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center and attorney for the petitioners. “We need a rule in place so the Department of Labor can enforce protections for these vulnerable workers.”
The petitions are submitted by the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, North Carolina State AFL-CIO, Union of Southern Service Workers, The Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County / El Vinculo Hispano, the North Carolina NAACP State Conference and the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center — all organizations seeking to protect and advance the rights of North Carolina workers to a safe and healthy working environment. The petitioners are represented by the North Carolina Justice Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Episcopal Farmworker Ministry seeks to minister to farmworkers through direct services, development, and support of programs that work towards the empowerment of farmworkers, and by advocating for systemic change of agricultural policy at local and state levels. Their mission is to respond to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families. During the pandemic, EFWM has served its community by providing food, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, and mental health services to agricultural workers. In addition, they have provided direct financial support to agricultural workers impacted by COVID-19, including payments to workers who did not get paid for time they were required to quarantine, workers who lost their jobs or had their hours reduced, and payments to relatives of workers who have been hospitalized or died as a result of contracting COVID-19 at work.
Union of Southern Service Workers is made up of workers coming together across industries to build worker power and to transform their low wage, high turnover jobs into good union jobs. They believe that people who work hard for a living should make enough to support themselves, their families, and their neighborhood. They demand dignity and equal treatment, health and safety at work, fair and consistent scheduling, fair pay, and a seat at the table. Members complained that when coworkers got sick, they were not informed, and their workplaces were not adequately cleaned. Members filed complaints with NCDOL about the lack of COVID-19 precautions taken by their fast-food employers.
NC State AFL-CIO is the largest association of unions of working people in North Carolina, representing over a hundred thousand members. They work together for good jobs, safe workplaces, workers’ rights, consumer protections, and quality public services on behalf of ALL working people. Since the start of the pandemic, the NC AFL-CIO has been calling for emergency standards to protect essential workers.
Western North Carolina Workers’ Center builds power among immigrant workers in western North Carolina through education, organizing, and direct action to promote worker justice. They have been in continuous communication with workers about their concerns about working during a pandemic through their worker leadership circles. They have also distributed $118,000 in financial support to immigrant workers across western North Carolina, including to the families of three workers who died after contracting COVID-19 at the local poultry processing plant, Case Farms.
El Vinculo Hispano’s clients work in food processing, including at Mountaire, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson poultry processing plants, as well as in the service and construction industry. Due to the working conditions in these industries, their clients are at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19 at work. Hundreds of poultry workers and their family members in the region served by EVH (Chatham, Lee, Alamance, and Randolph counties) have been infected, and a few have died from COVID-19.
NC-NAACP is North Carolina’s branch of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. It is the second-largest state conference of the NAACP in the United States. For over 70 years, NC-NAACP has pursued its mission to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and discrimination. The organization has followed a variety of strategies to carry out this goal, including litigation and direct advocacy on behalf of workers’ rights and economic justice.
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.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to mobilize the nation’s leading lawyers as agents for change in the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the Lawyers’ Committee uses legal advocacy to achieve racial justice, fighting inside and outside the courts to ensure that Black people and other people of color have the voice, opportunity, and power to make the promises of our democracy real. For more information, please visit https://lawyerscommittee.org