Berry faces challenge from Meeker in race for Commissioner of Labor

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
Cherie Berry

RALEIGH — As the nation celebrates Labor Day, two candidates vie for the Commissioner of Labor post that enforces the regulatory accomplishments of the American labor movement. North Carolina is one of only four states — along with Georgia, Oklahoma and Oregon — that still hold elections for the post, the rest being appointed by governors.Republican incumbent Cherie Berry, who’s held the office since 2000, faces a challenge from Democrat attorney and former mayor of Raleigh Charles Meeker. North State Journal interviewed both candidates as we profile down-ballot statewide races in this presidential election year.Meeker, an attorney with Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, seeks to dislodge Berry from her post, claiming she has not been effective in her role.”The incumbent has been there 16 years,” said Meeker. “The department is not functioning well and it’s simply time for a change to make the Department of Labor much more proactive, to protect employees and also, frankly, protect employers that are playing by the rules.”Meeker asserted that worker safety is an important issue and said the Department of Labor needs to do better in this area, citing 137 workers killed on the job according to the most recent year data is available. However, Meeker’s strongest criticism of his opponent is in the area of wage and hour controls regulated by the department, saying she is too soft on employers who have failed to pay employees according to the law.”The department just needs to be much more active in using the authority it already has to honor employees and their complaints and to take action, such as filing lawsuits if employees have not been paid,” said Meeker. “The current department’s practice is when an employer says he or she can’t pay, they close the file. That would not be my practice.”The Commissioner of Labor is entitled to file lawsuits, take liens on assets, to attempt to recover wages, and those are the kind of debt collection tactics I would use to attempt to get employees paid.”Meeker also believes employee classification — correctly counting workers as employees that deserve benefits, instead of contract workers — is an area Berry has fallen short on. He cited FedEx drivers, classified as independent contractors, but who match a more traditional employer/employee relationship, as an example of lacking enforcement.”The department is not doing much work in either of those areas,” Meeker said. “So employees are not being paid and too many don’t get benefits.”Meeker, 66, also takes issue with Berry’s reputation as the “elevator lady,” referring to her picture appearing in every state-inspected elevator.”My view on that is that space should be used to honor workers such as teachers, firefighters, truck drivers who are making the state a better place, and not just to promote a career politician,” explained Meeker. “So should I get elected I’ll make a change on that picture in the elevator.”Berry, a former Republican N.C. House member and business owner, thinks that worker safety is her primary role and the one in which she takes the most pride.”That’s the mission I’ve been on for the past 16 years and we got good results,” said Berry. “I’d like to take credit for it but I can’t, because it’s up to the employers and the employees all across the state.”Berry, 69, explained that when she assumed office, the rate of injury or illness for workers across the state was 5.3 for every 100 full-time workers. The number has fallen nearly every year of her tenure, now standing at 2.7 per 100 workers, the lowest in North Carolina’s history.”I’m running for re-election because I want to continue that downward trend in injuries and illnesses of workers, both in the public sector and private sector,” said Berry.Addressing criticisms that she is too cozy with the businesses she regulates, Berry defended her approach, saying it’s the most effective way to get results.”I’ve been accused to being too business friendly, but that’s what it’s all about,” said Berry. “I’d like the think we had a partnership with [businesses], and they saw us not so much as a regulatory agency that had an adversarial relationship with them, but more as their partners in trying to create safe and healthy work places.”Berry said her experience in the legislature and as a small business owner is what attracted her to the top labor post and makes her uniquely qualified to continue at the helm.”My husband and I started a company up in Maiden, in Catawba County, and we manufactured wire-wound spark plug wires for the automotive industry,” explained Berry. The 50-employee company was sold to a supplier in the 1990s and still operates in Maiden. “Prior to that I was in the N.C. House, so I’ve got experience being a legislator and making laws and seeing them passed, and being a small business owner.”As far as enforcing the law on wage cases, Berry said you have to pick your battles while being conscious of the limited resources available.”Is it going to be the best use of our resources to do that; or should we concentrate on the ones that we can have a good result for?” said Berry. “When you try and collect money from an entity that has gone out of business, it’s hard to get blood out of a turnip, but we do the best we can given the laws we have to work with.”Voters will decide just who deserves this low-profile position with high significance for employers and employees on Nov. 8.