“We’re working on the line and shoulder-to-shoulder. We have no space on the line, in the break-room, and in the lockers,” Sarah Seibert, who debones hams at a Smithfield’s Food plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, told the Worker Institute at Cornell University in a May interview about the workplace conditions she faced at the start of the pandemic. “When I heard the first person get sick in the plant. Before the first person gets sick I heard about social distancing and wash your hands. I emailed managers because we have no social distancing. They called me back and said they had no plans.”
In July, a cruise ship worker told my colleagues that her former employer “couldn’t guarantee PPE for workers, and … wouldn’t require masks for customers.” Laundry workers at the industrial cleaning facilities responsible for keeping New York City hospitals stacked with clean linens report poor ventilation and little enforcement of social distancing. “I am very scared for myself but mostly for my family because I’m afraid that I will contaminate them,” one worker said.
There’s no question that Covid-19 is a labor crisis as much as it’s a health crisis. But as the News & Observer recently reported, it’s clear that people in power don’t always share that view. In October, a cohort of six worker advocacy groups in North Carolina submitted a petition for the state Department of Labor to adopt enforceable guidelines to create and encourage safer work conditions ahead of the pandemic’s winter surge. Tasked with responding to that letter and enacting the proposed regulations was Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry.
Her response was revealing. On November 9, Berry wrote, in part:
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.
The rest of the letter was a master class in how to discredit basic science, allow bosses to step on workers, and casually cast off the deaths of 5,595 North Carolinians and counting. Berry cited the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was late to recommend mask-wearing as a reason that, five months later, “a state agency cannot responsibly adopt a rule about a disease about which the medical community knows so little, especially regarding its transmissions.” She noted her belief that “consultative work … instead of aggressive regulatory actions specific to Covid-19, benefit a greater number of employees across the state.”
As an anti-regulation Republican, Berry has rarely been an ally to North Carolina workers in her two decades in the role. The pandemic hasn’t softened her position. For her part, Berry has largely shied away from enforcing any of Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s related executive orders, which have included mask mandates for both business owners and individuals. Cooper also promised farmworker advocacy groups that he would issue an executive order to increase testing access and hygiene requirements, only to be told by Berry that if he issued it, “I respectfully ask that you take care not to publicly overstate the role of the NCDOL regarding enforcement.” Facing similar messages from the Agriculture and Health and Human Services department heads, Cooper quietly walked back plans for such an order.
As the News & Observer reported, North Carolina has been home to 280 reported clusters at workplaces, which has resulted in over 6,000 cases and 30 deaths, yet the only citations Berry’s department has handed out in the pandemic have been unrelated to Covid-19. With the agriculture industry still deeply rooted in the state’s rural economies, meatpacking plants like those of Tyson and Smithfield dot farm counties throughout North Carolina. And as with other states, the cases have followed—over two-thirds of North Carolina’s workplace-related cases have been traced back to such plants. In Berry’s letter, she wrote, in support of not enforcing regulations, that “most of these deaths are people over the age of 65; generally this group is no longer active in the workforce.” Meanwhile, in the first week of December, two elderly workers employed at a nursing home in Hickory contracted the virus and died within a day of one another.
In the Tar Heel State, the Commissioner of Labor is an elected position, unlike the federal agency’s appointed status, which makes Berry’s prolonged tenure a curious facet of North Carolina politics. She actually holds a bit of a mythic status in the state—Lord knows it’s not for anything she’s done to help workers but for the grand idea a communications staffer had to plaster her face in every elevator in the state for increased visibility (Berry waited until she was reelected to her second term to move forward with the change). She even snagged the Twitter handle “@ElevatorQueen” to double down on the branding exercise. The widespread name recognition has helped the conservative regulator win five consecutive terms.
Berry has subsequently rewarded that voter loyalty by using the Department of Labor to do basically nothing for workers. Her office’s refusal to pursue fines and enforce regulations against companies who steal wages or use unsafe labor practices was so prolific that the News & Observer issued a five-part series detailing how, in 2014, the department failed to help “roughly 40 percent” of the 1,521 workers who reached out with valid claims. (She easily won reelection two years later.)
Naturally, it does not play well to run an anti-worker campaign even with a record this stark, so Berry, like a great many elected conservatives, has instead grown adept at weaving in vague worker-friendly rhetoric into her media hits while unsubtly chipping away at what little ground remains beneath them. This culminates in fluffy interviews like this 2019 piece with the Charlotte Agenda, wherein Berry, stretching the truth as far as possible, described her job as commissioner as, “making sure to the best of our ability that we use our resources so that people can be as safe and healthy as possible at work.”
As beautiful as it would be to see Berry crushed in a reelection bid out of pure voter spite for her betrayal of North Carolina workers, that day will sadly never come. Berry is retiring at the end of her term, with her replacement, Josh Dobson, set to take over in January.
But Berry wasn’t the first of her kind and won’t be the last. It remains difficult, in a year that has exacerbated all of America’s existing fatal flaws, to comprehend how pervasive this brand of worker-be-damned attitude remains in U.S. politics and industry: Congressional Republicans have stonewalled direct worker relief and starved cities of the resources necessary to safely shut down businesses while the worst of the virus passes.
What we’re left with, then, is a situation where companies are largely left to govern themselves during a public health crisis. Even when the government has intervened, it’s been too little too late: Tyson and competitor Smithfield—at the government’s demand—kept their facilities open through the spring, hosting numerous hotspot outbreaks across the country. The two companies, both union-busters to their cores, got slap-on-the-wrist fines from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration for the outbreaks leading to the deaths of dozens of meatpacking workers. (One supposes it would be difficult for the Trump administration to turn around and levy a meaningful fine after cheering the companies on from D.C.)
The compounding crises facing America at this moment are defined not by what’s been done but by what hasn’t. The resulting disaster—incoming and observable from space for months—has left millions of workers in the United States to make a daily personal decision between protecting themselves and their families or succumbing to financial ruin. And now, as states set daily positive test records and watch their hospital capacity shrink, it only feels right that the anti-labor ghouls like Berry would sink even deeper into their disregard for workers.