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NC Labor Chief: enforcer or partner to business?

Labor chief: enforcer or partner to business?
Ames Alexander and David Ingram, McClatchy Newspapers
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One says regulators need to cooperate with industry. The other says regulators sometimes need to get tough.
In the race for state labor commissioner, North Carolina voters will find a clear difference in the philosophies of the two candidates.

Republican Cherie Berry, who is seeking a third term, says the labor department needs to partner with the state's businesses to improve workplace safety. By using such a cooperative approach, she said, the department has helped make the state's workplaces safer than ever.

Democrat Mary Fant Donnan, a program officer for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, says firm enforcement is a better alternative for companies that repeatedly run afoul of workplace safety rules.

The commissioner leads the N.C. Department of Labor, which is charged by state law with promoting the "health, safety and general well-being" of more than 4 million North Carolina workers. The department is responsible for overseeing workplace safety, inspecting elevators, mines and amusement rides, and administering the state's wage-and-hour law.

Berry, who previously co-owned a Catawba County company that makes spark plug wires, said occupational injury, illness and death rates have declined to record lows under her eight-year tenure.

"I have a proven record of success," she said.

Statistics show injury rates have declined in North Carolina and nationally since 2000, but experts say the decline in manufacturing, underreporting of workplace injuries and changes in recordkeeping rules likely contributed.

An investigation by The Charlotte Observer into working conditions in the poultry industry found evidence that many injuries aren't reported. The newspaper also found that fines for serious workplace violations in North Carolina manufacturing plants are less than half the national average. Some poultry processing plants haven't been inspected in more than five years.

Berry, 61, has laid out few plans to change the department but says she will keep her focus on the safety and health of the state's workers. Employees, she said, aren't the only ones who have benefited from her approach.

"It also helps businesses with their bottom line," said Berry, who has been endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses. "And that's critical, critical during these stressful economic times, to help our businesses be profitable in every way we can."

Berry argues that stiff fines for OSHA violations aren't the best way to make workplaces safer. Companies, she says, sometimes contest large fines, which can lead to delays in correcting safety hazards.

Business executives have come to trust her labor department, she says.

"In the past, companies wouldn't just pick up the phone and ... say come out and help us," she said. "But they do now. ... And that's so important."

Donnan, 46, says the labor commissioner should not be in partnership with businesses or labor unions.

"The position is about being balanced and focused on the best interests of the state and looking at both sides of that equation," she said.

Donnan said that the commissioner should be more involved in negotiations over working conditions for migrant workers and that she would ask lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, now $6.55 an hour in North Carolina. (Berry says she would not advocate for or against a raise.)

Donnan criticizes Berry's handling of OSHA inspections in the poultry industry.

"Folks go to work each day, and their families want to know that they're coming home at the end of the day and they're coming back intact," Donnan said.

Donnan has experience in the department, working for seven years under former Commissioner Harry Payne to expand the agency's traditional boundaries in areas such as adult literacy and financial literacy. "As we transition into more of a technology or new-age economy, a lot more jobs involve critical-thinking skills," she said.

With the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Donnan works statewide with nonprofits that receive grants.

Donnan, in her first run for public office, has been endorsed by the State Employees Association of North Carolina and at least two labor unions, the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters.

On the campaign stump, Berry touts her opposition to unions. Donnan supports the repeal of a ban on public employees bargaining collectively, though she said the state still could restrict strikes.

The two also disagree on the rules employers should follow to prevent ergonomic injuries. After her election, Berry declined to implement rules that she says would have been a burden on businesses. Donnan says that was a mistake and that she would study whether to write new rules.


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FAMILY: She and her late husband had four children.
EDUCATION: A graduate of Maiden High School in Catawba County, she attended classes at Appalachian State University, Lenoir-Rhyne University, Gaston Community College and other colleges.
PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: Founder and former co-owner of LGM Ltd., a company that makes spark plug wires.
POLITICAL RESUME: Served in the state legislature from 1993 through 2000, representing House District 45 - part of Lincoln, Gaston and Catawba counties.
WEB SITE: www.cherieberry.com

RESIDENCE: Winston-Salem
FAMILY: Married, children ages 3, 6 and 8
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree from Davidson College, 1984; master's degree in environmental studies from the University of Adelaide in south Australia, 1989.
PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: Program officer for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, 2001 to present; policy analyst and director of research and policy for the N.C. Department of Labor, 1994 to 2001.
POLITICAL RESUME: First-time candidate
WEB SITE: www.maryfantdonnan.com

Candidates Q&AWhat would be your top priorities if elected?
Berry: "My top priority is and always will be the safety and health of over 4 million workers in the state."
Donnan: "Take a fresh look at our safety and health record, the cost (that) injuries and illnesses have to employers and employees in the state, and figure out what we can do with the resources we have. ... Take a look at the fairness in our regulatory oversight, at our whistle-blower protection and at the kind of standards that give our workers a voice. ... Be an advocate for continuing to invest in public-private partnerships for asset-building and work-retraining."
What are the labor department's top needs?
Berry: "I can't think of anything. I think they're doing fine. We don't need (more) money. ... We just need to be allowed to continue to do the job we're doing."
Donnan: "In a very tight budget year, the General Assembly did give the department new positions for the poultry industry. Our commissioner has said that there isn't a need in that sector. ... One of the needs is to go in and use the positions in the way the General Assembly intended."
What most distinguishes you from your opponent?
Berry: "I have a proven record of success with the Department of Labor over the past almost eight years. The injury and illness rate for the N.C. workers is the lowest on record for the last seven years. And our fatalities are at a record low."
Donnan: "I characterize our incumbent as someone who is more interested in managing the work of the department and making sure that whatever has been done is still being done. I look at that office as an executive position, where we are in critical times and we need energetic leadership."
What's one specific way you would change about the way the Department of Labor operates?
Berry: "We always work to improve our customer service. ... To make sure that things are handled in a timely fashion and to the best of our ability and to everyone's satisfaction."
Donnan: "We would see ourselves as not the voice of one constituency, but of all constituencies that care about workers and working families."
Average OSHA fines in North Carolina are among the lowest in the nation. What are your thoughts about that?
Berry: "We're not in the business of collecting large fines that put businesses out of business, or stress them financially. I'm in the business of getting hazards abated when they're identified. I want them to use their money to fix those hazards. ... And if you impose really high fines and they're contested, they can be tied up in the court system for years ... and while they're tied up in the court system, they're not abated."
Donnan: "It concerns me. To the extent that fines help deter infractions, that can be an issue. ... What concerns me more is that we don't even enforce the fines that are levied."

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