Politics & Government

‘The Elevator Lady’ employs regulators, dislikes regulations

At Bridgestone’s tire plant in Wilson, Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry congratulates employees on safety record.
At Bridgestone’s tire plant in Wilson, Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry congratulates employees on safety record. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry has a hefty job: protecting the lives and livelihoods of North Carolina’s workers.

But Berry, who once fumed about the attitude of a regulator who was inspecting the factory she had owned, prefers to coax company owners to comply rather than punish them when they don’t.

Berry is a former Democrat turned Ronald Reagan disciple, a woman steeled as a single mother in the North Carolina foothills who later made a fortune after devising a new type of wiring for spark plugs. She led welfare reform in the legislature, then moved into statewide politics to be an advocate for the employers she sees as the lifeblood of the economy.

To most North Carolinians, Berry is “The Elevator Lady,” the smiling politician pictured on every elevator’s inspection certificate, a placard that assures the ride will be safe.

But during her 15 years as labor commissioner, Berry has been a reluctant regulator, a News & Observer investigation shows. She pursued the job, in part, because of her experience with state safety inspectors. Her run was inspired by the desire to make regulators more respectful to business owners.

Berry, a Republican, makes no apology for the way she has run the department. She said her switch to the Republican Party was spurred in part by her growing distaste for regulations and regulators.

“There seemed to be this belief that, ‘It’s just a regulation and it’s going to do all this good,’ ” Berry said. “You start adding them up, adding them up, and pretty soon, the pile is so high, that it’s very hard to climb over them to be able to do what you want to do. And some of them weren’t really necessary.”

That sentiment colors the policies and practices within Berry’s department, which has a $33 million annual budget and 355 employees.

During the last three years, The News & Observer exposed a massive labor scheme in which companies gain a competitive edge by treating workers who should be employees as contractors. The practice, called misclassification, robs workers of protections and costs at least $467 million annually in state and federal tax revenue. As other state leaders worked on the issue, Berry said she had little or no role and kept her distance.

And when workers try to collect checks their bosses failed to pay, Berry’s team has provided little help. The Labor Department rarely takes employers to court, closing the books when an employer says he can’t or won’t pay.

Though Berry takes pride in her track record on worker safety, her department has often been distant from advocates for workers. A safety advisory board established by law – which included both labor and business interests – was suspended for nearly five years, despite a state law requiring regular meetings. It met again in July after an N&O story.

At 68, Berry is poised to fight to keep her $125,676-a-year position next year, saying she’s done an impressive job. She will likely face former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, a Democrat.

When asked why she wants to secure a fifth term as labor commissioner, Berry said she wants to stay the course.

“The Labor Department ain’t broke, and we don’t need to fix it,” she said. “I just want the chance to continue the journey I’m on ...”

A new spark

Berry’s path to the labor job followed an unusual course. Though her predecessors and her 2000 election opponent were lawyers, Berry never graduated from college.

Within four years of finishing high school in the small mill town of Maiden in Catawba County, Berry found herself married and rearing two young daughters. The marriage soon ended, and Berry became a single mother. Times were so lean that Berry learned how to make pottery to earn extra money by selling her wares to travelers along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“I learned that it’s hard (being a single parent),” Berry said. “And that you have to be very creative in getting the timing right for things like, ‘How do I take care of these two kids by myself?’ 

A second marriage in the 1970s led her to the suburbs of Detroit, then a vibrant and thriving city. It was there that Berry first got interested in politics. Frustration over funding for schools led Berry to run for state representative.

She ran as a Democrat and says that at the time she identified as one. She lost, coming in third of four in a primary.

In 1985, Berry returned to Catawba County with a third husband and an idea. The evolution of automobile design was posing a problem – and an opportunity – for spark plug manufacturing. A new type of spark plug wiring was needed.

Berry worked day and night, mixing and sorting ferrite formulas in mason jars and mixing bowls in her kitchen. Berry has no science or engineering background, and while her husband’s family had worked in automobile manufacturing, the two found themselves blindly trying to create a product they felt the auto parts industry needed.

They soon hit paydirt.

Berry describes those early days as owner of LGM Limited as both exhausting and exhilarating. Many days were frustrating, too.

In the early years, Berry and her husband kept their business lean by necessity, so Berry wore many hats. She handled payroll and contracts. As she tried to learn to comply with various regulations, she found them overly complex.

Seeing every single little law, standard, case law that we had to deal with, I became very frustrated.

Cherie Berry, on her experiences running a business with her husband

“Seeing every single little law, standard, case law that we had to deal with, I became very frustrated,” Berry said.

She turned that frustration into a political campaign. Berry ran for state representative in 1992 and spent the next eight years in the state legislature applying the philosophies she fostered over the prior decade as a business owner. Her new party tapped her to lead Republican efforts to reform welfare. With every vote she cast, Berry says she tried to pare the influence of government.

Berry and her husband sold their manufacturing company to a Connecticut-based supplier in 1995. They made enough from the sale that they could have retired. Instead, Norman Berry continued to run the plant; Cherie Berry, then 49, continued as a consultant.

Berry soon turned her attention to a new opportunity: helping business owners not feel like bad guys when state health and safety inspectors came knocking.

Employers as partners

Berry recalls feeling belittled by the inspector who came to examine working conditions at the plant in 2000. She wanted to keep her workers safe, too, but after the inspector looked around, Berry felt like she was perceived as an impediment, not a partner in making the plant safe.

“I was just not happy with the way they presented themselves, with the way they looked at what they were doing,” Berry said in an interview this summer. “I didn’t think they respected how hard we worked to get to the point we were at.”

“Instead of coming in and saying, ‘This is wrong over there, this is wrong over here and you owe us this much money’ – I mean, no. That’s not the best way to do it,” she said.

The inspector Berry recalls died in 2006. Doug Jones was the supervisor who signed off on the inspection. Jones, who has been with the department since 1986, said Berry has never addressed her concerns with him about that visit.

After reading the inspection report again last month, Jones said he sees nothing amiss; during the visit, the same practices the department had then, and now, were followed.

“We've always tried to be helpful and do what we had to do based on the law,” said Jones. “If there is a hazard, we have to cite it. We've tried to educate the employer so they know what to do and how to fix things.”

Safety inspectors had previously visited the plant in 1998, an unannounced visit that resulted in five serious violations. The inspector cited the company for violations such as pulleys left unguarded and a receptacle box with an open hole, according to a report of the visit. The department fined the company $550.

A complaint led state safety inspectors to the spark plug factory two years later. In 1999, an employee’s stomach was punctured by a piece of machinery she said was operated without a safety guard, according to the lawyer who represented the injured woman in a workers’ compensation claim. By the time inspectors visited in February 2000, Berry was running for labor commissioner, and her husband urged the inspectors to wait to inspect the plant until his wife could arrive.

As inspectors walked through the plant four days later, Berry and her husband followed. This time, the company was not fined for any issues the inspector noted, according to a copy of the report. Among the problems the inspector noted: Berry and her husband did not wear protective gear while visiting the manufacturing area.

As labor commissioner, Berry vowed to bring more education and less punishment to employers. She does not believe that fines deter bad behavior. Berry sees business leaders as partners for her OSHA inspectors, not adversaries who must be scrutinized.

“Once you get that word of mouth going (that) ‘OSHA visited us. They fined us a little bit, but they taught us a lot,’ ” she said, “I mean, that makes such a difference, such a difference.”

Business interests have helped Berry maintain her position. Of the more than $800,000 she has raised for her campaigns, more than a third has come from three industries she encounters often in health and safety inspections: construction, manufacturing and agribusiness.

Eddie Williams, board chairman of Buckner Companies in Graham, which manufactures steel and erection equipment, has donated $13,000 to Berry’s campaigns since 2007 and hosted a fundraiser for her. He was struck immediately by her emphasis on safety training for workers.

“My company works nationwide, and regretfully, many states are more interested in issuing citations and large fines with very little effort to train the workers,” Williams said in an email.

Although she works closely with business, we don’t really get any breaks when there is an inspection,” he said in an interview.

Williams called Berry’s experience as a company owner and legislator a “perfect fit” for labor commissioner.

On the road

Berry spends much of her time on the road.

She acts as a cheerleader for businesses that take it upon themselves to make their workplaces safe. Each year, Berry zigzags the state, handing out certificates and plaques to employers who achieve high safety marks from her team.

At a safety presentation at the Bridgestone Tire plant in Wilson in July, Berry worked the room. She shook every hand and posed for a selfie with two women delighted to finally meet “The Elevator Lady.”

She called everyone “y’all,” and as she stood at the lectern, she twisted her hips and said she, for one, was in a mood to celebrate. She talked about her grandson, her graying hair.

Berry is charming. Often, she’s disarming.

But when her role or her people are criticized, she strikes back. In 2008, as reporters at The Charlotte Observer uncovered major safety and health problems at poultry plants and a Labor Department that rarely visited, Berry defended the businesses and said her department would change nothing.

When the reporter asked if statewide illness and injury rates could be trusted after the Observer’s reports showed poultry plants keeping inaccurate records, Berry fired back.

“Well, I find it offensive that it seems to me you’re suggesting that not keeping the proper paperwork is commonplace in our business community. I just don’t find that,” she said. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing because it’s working. And, no amount of ink and paper in the world that you generate is going to stop us from doing the good job we’re doing.”

Berry’s department is sometimes seen as an island. She meets infrequently with her state government counterparts, according to a review of her 2014 calendar.

Berry’s department is sometimes seen as an island. She meets infrequently with her state government counterparts, according to a review of her 2014 calendar.

In 2012, when Gov. Bev Perdue convened a task force of state leaders to examine companies illegally treating workers as contractors, Berry didn’t attend, sending her staff instead.

Her counterparts – state insurance commissioner, secretary of state, chairwoman of the Industrial Commission and head of the Division of Employment Security – all attended.

Former state Rep. Rick Glazier of Fayetteville, a Democrat who consistently sides with workers, said Berry’s agency has not been front and center on key issues. When legislators were working this year to create a new unit of enforcers to go after companies that cheat by misclassifying their workers as contractors, for example, there was no thought of having it housed at the Labor Department.

“Nobody, nobody was advocating the Department of Labor be it,” he said.

As the issue was raised in The N&O’s reporting in the past three years, Berry has insisted she has little or no part to play. Though her department’s Wage and Hour investigators routinely encounter workers improperly classified as contractors, Berry said the problem was not her department’s domain.

By law, Berry does have some authority in this area. Workers misclassified as independent contractors are often deprived of overtime pay. State law gives Berry’s department the authority to investigate and force payment of overtime for companies with less than $500,000 in annual sales. That’s the majority of businesses in North Carolina.

Berry defends her record on all fronts but is particularly proud of strides made in safety. Injury rates have declined under her watch – from 4.8 per 100 full-time workers in 2001 to 2.9 in 2013. That decline largely follows the national trend: 5.7 in 2001 to 3.3 in 2013.

Still, Berry said she will take some credit for the decline.

“I’m the only elected official whose success and failure is measured in human lives and human limbs,” she said. “That’s what we measure it by. I’m proud of that record.”

Database editor David Raynor contributed.

Wednesday: Feeling forgotten

The series

Sunday: No action ‘on your behalf’

Monday: Public funds, private cheating

Tuesday: Commissioner aims to help business

Wednesday: Workers ruined by loss of pay

What’s in a name?

For most of her life, Cherie Killian had a rather ordinary name.

Friends and family pronounced her first name Cherie (Shuh-REE). Think Stevie Wonder’s 1969 soul classic “My Cherie Amour.”

But a marriage to Norman Berry in the 1980s brought new possibilities. Once Cherie Berry’s picture was plastered on every elevator inspection report after her re-election to labor commissioner in 2004, the temptation for a rhyming name (CHER-ee BER-ee) arrived.

Berry has embraced the evolving pronunciation. Teachers have sent her videos of school children chanting her name while riding an elevator. An Elon University student wrote a ballad to “The Elevator Lady.”

Now, Berry answers to either version.

“I like it,” she said. “It’s easy for little kids to say.”

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