RALEIGH — Weeks after a public commitment to issue a new executive order with sweeping labor protections for vulnerable agricultural workers in the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Roy Cooper's office said they couldn't follow through, citing pushback from state officials.
The decision was communicated to the N.C. Farmworker Advocacy Network, a coalition of organizations, which has demanded worker safety measures since the start of the pandemic and had been in conversation with state health officials and the governor's office.
"We are told the governor has rescinded his commitment, largely based on pushback from the Department or Labor and (the Department of) Agriculture, which has claimed it is not interested in enforcing these kinds of safety regulations," according to a news release from the coalition.
The N.C. Farmworker Advocacy Network denounced these reasons as not being "true or valid," while Cooper's office told The News & Observer in an email that disagreement with stakeholders kept the governor from issuing the order.
"Protecting agriculture and meat-processing workers is a high priority," said Dory MacMillan, a spokesperson. "While the governor and public health officials have had success on increasing some safety protocols ... there remains significant disagreement among growers, state labor officials and workers about overall solutions."
As the coronavirus pandemic dealt a blow to the largely Latino immigrant agricultural workforce in North Carolina's fields and meat-processing plants, organizations sounded alarms for months and urged the state to respond.
"We thought having an executive order would still be really valuable in terms of protecting workers lives because even if the Department of Labor is not enforcing it and the rules were mandatory ... not all employers, but a lot of employers, would start complying," said Clermont Ripley, a senior staff attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center.
Coalition members were told by Cooper's office that the order would do "more harm than good" due to the pushback, Ripley said.
The executive order is similar to one issued in Wisconsin and another recently issued in Michigan enforcing worker protections.
The provisions of the drafted North Carolina order more greatly enforced social-distancing measures, heightened sanitation, proactive COVID-19 screening and improved access to testing for workers on farms and processing plants.
Outbreaks at meat packing plants and farmworker housing complexes appeared across the state since the pandemic began.