Health & Family

Scrutiny won't grow at poultry plants

The N.C. Department of Labor said Friday that it will not significantly change its inspections of North Carolina's poultry plants, despite four new positions that state lawmakers say they created to improve enforcement of safety laws.

Lawmakers provided $350,000 for the new positions but did not specify that they be used to protect poultry workers. They also largely ignored other proposals to improve worker safety, adjourning indefinitely Friday without acting.

The decisions by the Labor Department and by lawmakers mean the state will likely do little this year to improve conditions for poultry workers.

“We're going to continue doing business the way I imagine we've always done it,” said Dolores Quesenberry, spokeswoman for Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry. “We've been doing a good job with that all along, and we're going to continue that.”

Poultry workers across the Carolinas say those hurt on the job are routinely ignored, threatened or fired. Their complaints were included in a series of Observer stories beginning in February that questioned the effectiveness of state and federal oversight. The series found that some large plants had not been inspected in five years.

Dissatisfied with the enforcement of safety laws, Gov. Mike Easley has tried to empower officials other than the labor commissioner. Lawmakers argue that enforcement should remain a responsibility of the commissioner, who is elected independent of the governor.

Two weeks ago, lawmakers passed a budget plan that added four staff members to the Labor Department's Division of Occupational Safety and Health. The plan says the staff members will “evaluate workers and work force conditions affecting worker safety” – intended to be in the poultry industry, according to lawmakers who wrote the plan.

“The thinking was that it would help solve some of those problems in the poultry industry,” said Rep. Edith Warren, a Pitt County Democrat.

But the budget plan does not mention the poultry industry, and Quesenberry said the Labor Department will put the new staffers to work “across the board for all industries.”

Quesenberry defended the department's approach to poultry and other workplaces: develop partnerships with management rather than issue fines for safety violations.

“You can't just knock on the door, show up at a business and say, ‘I'm going to investigate,'” Quesenberry said. “You have to have a good reason to be there.”

Jackie Nowell, spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers in Washington, said N.C. government has a special obligation to workers because its system of enforcement is structured to include little federal oversight.

“They're saying to the federal government, ‘We want to do this ourselves. We think we can do a better program,'” Nowell said. “They should be even more vigilant, in my eyes.”

Told of the Labor Department's plans, Warren and Sen. David Weinstein said the plans are contrary to their intent. Still, they said they trust the labor commissioner to enforce safety laws correctly.

“The poultry and turkey industry is a very important industry. We want to keep it healthy,” said Weinstein, a Robeson County Democrat and co-chair of a Senate budget subcommittee.

Weinstein has three major poultry plants in his Senate district. He said he knows and respects Marvin Johnson, whose House of Raeford Farms was at the center of the Observer's series.

“I think management is trying to do the right thing,” Weinstein said. “Since the articles, I think they've decided to be good corporate citizens.”

The company has strongly contested the Observer's findings.

Bob Ford of the N.C. Poultry Federation, whose members include some of the largest poultry processors, said Friday that the industry opposes Easley's proposal to give the Division of Public Health the authority to inspect plants.

“We didn't see any real need to change the current system we're under…,” Ford said.

A series of Easley proposals didn't go far in the General Assembly. Easley, a Democrat, wanted to require large plants to hire or contract with licensed medical workers and to keep records of each time a worker complains about health concerns and how the company handled the complaint. The state health director would use information gathered during inspections to present N.C. officials with an annual summary of findings, as well as any recommendations for additional legislation, regulation or enforcement.

Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat, sponsored the legislation at Easley's request, but the bill never got out of a Senate committee. Clodfelter said Friday he did not know why but acknowledged he did not advocate for the bill.

Easley's chief policy adviser Alan Hirsch said that, at least in the short term, it will be the responsibility of Berry, a Republican, and the Labor Department to make the best use of the four new positions.

The N.C. Department of Labor said Friday that it will not significantly change its inspections of North Carolina's poultry plants, despite four new positions that state lawmakers say they created to improve enforcement of safety laws.

Lawmakers provided $350,000 for the new positions but did not specify that they be used to protect poultry workers. They also largely ignored other proposals to improve worker safety, adjourning indefinitely Friday without acting.

The decisions by the Labor Department and by lawmakers mean the state will likely do little this year to improve conditions for poultry workers.

“We're going to continue doing business the way I imagine we've always done it,” said Dolores Quesenberry, spokeswoman for Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry. “We've been doing a good job with that all along, and we're going to continue that.”

Poultry workers across the Carolinas say those hurt on the job are routinely ignored, threatened or fired. Their complaints were included in a series of Observer stories beginning in February that questioned the effectiveness of state and federal oversight. The series found that some large plants had not been inspected in five years.

Dissatisfied with the enforcement of safety laws, Gov. Mike Easley has tried to empower officials other than the labor commissioner. Lawmakers argue that enforcement should remain a responsibility of the commissioner, who is elected independent of the governor.

Two weeks ago, lawmakers passed a budget plan that added four staff members to the Labor Department's Division of Occupational Safety and Health. The plan says the staff members will “evaluate workers and work force conditions affecting worker safety” – intended to be in the poultry industry, according to lawmakers who wrote the plan.

“The thinking was that it would help solve some of those problems in the poultry industry,” said Rep. Edith Warren, a Pitt County Democrat.

But the budget plan does not mention the poultry industry, and Quesenberry said the Labor Department will put the new staffers to work “across the board for all industries.”

Quesenberry defended the department's approach to poultry and other workplaces: develop partnerships with management rather than issue fines for safety violations.

“You can't just knock on the door, show up at a business and say, ‘I'm going to investigate,'” Quesenberry said. “You have to have a good reason to be there.”

Jackie Nowell, spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers in Washington, said N.C. government has a special obligation to workers because its system of enforcement is structured to include little federal oversight.

“They're saying to the federal government, ‘We want to do this ourselves. We think we can do a better program,'” Nowell said. “They should be even more vigilant, in my eyes.”

Told of the Labor Department's plans, Warren and Sen. David Weinstein said the plans are contrary to their intent. Still, they said they trust the labor commissioner to enforce safety laws correctly.

“The poultry and turkey industry is a very important industry. We want to keep it healthy,” said Weinstein, a Robeson County Democrat and co-chair of a Senate budget subcommittee.

Weinstein has three major poultry plants in his Senate district. He said he knows and respects Marvin Johnson, whose House of Raeford Farms was at the center of the Observer's series.

“I think management is trying to do the right thing,” Weinstein said. “Since the articles, I think they've decided to be good corporate citizens.”

The company has strongly contested the Observer's findings.

Bob Ford of the N.C. Poultry Federation, whose members include some of the largest poultry processors, said Friday that the industry opposes Easley's proposal to give the Division of Public Health the authority to inspect plants.

“We didn't see any real need to change the current system we're under…,” Ford said.

A series of Easley proposals didn't go far in the General Assembly. Easley, a Democrat, wanted to require large plants to hire or contract with licensed medical workers and to keep records of each time a worker complains about health concerns and how the company handled the complaint. The state health director would use information gathered during inspections to present N.C. officials with an annual summary of findings, as well as any recommendations for additional legislation, regulation or enforcement.

Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat, sponsored the legislation at Easley's request, but the bill never got out of a Senate committee. Clodfelter said Friday he did not know why but acknowledged he did not advocate for the bill.

Easley's chief policy adviser Alan Hirsch said that, at least in the short term, it will be the responsibility of Berry, a Republican, and the Labor Department to make the best use of the four new positions.

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