Editorial Roundup: North Carolina

Winston-Salem Journal. Sept. 25, 2021.

Editorial: : NC is dead last for workers

As it turns out, the home of Andy Griffith, John Coltrane and the best barbecue in the world is not the kindest place to workers.

In fact, North Carolina ranks dead-last in the nation, according to a new report that compares every state, plus Washington, D.C, and Puerto Rico.

As in rock-bottom. Better than none. The lowest card in the deck.

The report, by the nonprofit Oxfam America, based the ratings on state policy as it affects wages, worker protections and the right to organize.

Oxfam says North Carolina ranks 52nd simply because it invests too little in its workers.

We’re not alone in the cellar. States in the South generally fared poorly in the rankings, with the exception of Virginia, which placed 23rd.

One rung above North Carolina was Georgia (No. 51); then came Mississippi (50th), Alabama (49th) and South Carolina (48th).

The reactions, predictably, have fallen along partisan lines.

The office of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, generally agreed with the findings.

But the office of the most powerful politician in the state dismissed the report as shallow and agenda-driven.

“This left-wing advocacy group that most people have never heard of simply doesn’t like the policies that North Carolina Republicans have adopted,” said Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican.

“There’s no rigorous statistical analysis here,” Ryan said in an email to The (Raleigh) News & Observer. “They’re giving high scores to laws they like and low scores to laws they don’t like, which is probably why just about every Democratic-run state has a high score and every Republican-run state has a low score.”

Ryan’s right on at least one count: Oxfam does lean to the left. Founded in Britain, the coalition of charities fights poverty and advocates for workers.

But facts are neither partisan nor ideological. And, as they say, the proof is in the pudding:

North Carolina’s minimum wage is a paltry $7.25 an hour, which is only 23.2% of what it takes to support a family of four. And which does not apply to farmworkers.

By state law local governments cannot set higher minimum wages.

No laws in North Carolina protect workers from sexual harassment.

There is no requirement for paid family leave in North Carolina.

There are few state protections against sexual harassment.

And if you should lose your job here, North Carolina offers some of the stingiest and cruelest unemployment benefits in the nation.

Then there is the state Department of Labor, which has established a well-earned reputation over the years as more employer-friendly than employee-friendly.

During longtime Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry’s last year in office in 2020, 91 North Carolina workers died while on the job, the highest total in a decade.

Berry also famously declared that the COVID-19 pandemic did not constitute a workplace hazard.

“While I am not dismissing the tragic deaths that have occurred as a result of this virus, statistically, the virus has not been proven likely to cause death or serious physical harm from the perspective of an occupational hazard,” Berry wrote to worker advocates who had asked her for emergency protections during the outbreak.

At the time, in December 2020, more than 300 clusters of coronavirus infections in North Carolina workplaces had infected thousands of employees, especially first responders and poultry- and meat-processing plant workers.

Even as GOP leaders are “shocked, shocked” that anyone would find fault with working conditions in the state, many workers are voting with their feet.

There is a shortage of nurses, teachers, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, construction workers, restaurant workers, even after federal COVID unemployment benefits were cut.

Call these Americans lazy if you will, but the coronavirus appears to have forced a reckoning on workplaces and pay.

Many workers simply are not willing go back to the jobs they left ... or that left them.

At least not under the same circumstances.

We’re guessing that most people merely want what all of us want: a decent wage for a decent day’s work in a safe environment.

So, if we were legislators, we’d reconsider blaming the messenger.

We’d also reconsider the assumption that being worker-friendly necessarily means you must be anti-business.

It could only benefit the job climate in North Carolina if the state became known as a more nurturing and supportive environment for both business and workers.

You certainly don’t have to choose sides.

The upshot: Like it or not, Oxfam has a point.

North Carolina can do better. And North Carolina should do better.

That’s something our leaders in Raleigh should chew on the next time they’re out to lunch, and can’t find a waiter to serve them.

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Charlotte Observer. Sept. 28, 2021.

Editorial: Don’t shroud disciplinary records of NC employees

Three Wilmington police officers were fired last year after video footage from one officer’s cruiser revealed they had made a slew of racist and hate-filled remarks. Employee records later showed that two of those three officers had been demoted or terminated by the Wilmington Police Department before, but the reasons for those disciplinary actions aren’t public record.

Now, a bill to make disciplinary records of government employees in North Carolina more public seems to be catching a second wind in the state legislature.

Current law requires the “general description of the reasons” for a government employee’s promotion to be public record in North Carolina. That means that as it stands now, public officials — including law enforcement, teachers and school administrators — can be demoted, suspended or transferred without the public ever knowing why. (A 2010 law made public whether employees had been suspended or demoted, but it doesn’t require a description of the reasons.)

The Government Transparency Act of 2021 would expand this requirement to provide the general descriptions for demotions, transfers, suspensions, separations and dismissals. It would apply to all current and former state employees, local government employees and public school employees.

The bill has had a long, hard journey in the legislature this session — two different iterations of the bill have been passed between the House and Senate, ultimately landing in conference committees. Floor votes have fallen mostly along party lines, with Democrats largely voting against the legislation.

The vast majority of state employees, who conduct their jobs properly and with integrity, wouldn’t be affected by the legislation. Still, there are a handful who don’t. Those employees ought to be accountable to the public, whose taxes pay their salaries. That accountability is not as certain if key information about their job performance is shrouded in secrecy.

Those who oppose the bill, including the State Employees Association of North Carolina and the North Carolina Association of Educators, have expressed concerns that the bill would allow unfair or unfounded accusations to be made public, jeopardizing due process. Those objections are valid, but employee privacy and government transparency don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The bill’s language has been tweaked to reflect those worries; the most recent version would not make the reasons for a negative job change public until the appeals process has been completed.

The bill is a step toward a more transparent and open government, something all of North Carolina should favor. North Carolina lags other states in public records access and government transparency; our state is in the bottom five states in the country when it comes to the public’s right to see basic records of disciplinary actions taken against government employees, according to the North Carolina Press Association, which supports the bill. It’s not a radical approach — this right of access already exists in the majority of states.

The effort to make this information public has been underway for quite a while — legislation of this nature has been introduced several times in the last 24 years. A similar bill from 1997, called the “Discipline Disclosure Act,” would have made public disciplinary records of certain state employees, including state agencies and the UNC System. Though it failed to become law, it was sponsored by none other than Gov. Roy Cooper, who was a state senator at the time. Another bill, sponsored by Republicans, failed in 2011.

“I’m glad to work with the legislature on this legislation. I do believe that transparency is important,” Cooper said of HB 64 in June, saying he’d “see what (lawmakers) pass” before making a decision.

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Greensboro News & Record. Sept. 23, 2021.

Editorial: Public and police unite against a school threat

These are the times we live in.

On the same day a 15-year-old boy was charged with murder in a fatal shooting at Mount Tabor High School, an 18-year-old student was arrested in Jamestown after five Guilford County high schools had received violent threats on social media.

In Winston-Salem, Maurice T. Evans Jr. appeared at a hearing in juvenile court Tuesday morning, where a judge denied a request by Evans’ attorney that he be released into the custody of his parents.

Evans is accused of fatally shooting a Mount Tabor student, William Chavis Renard Miller Jr., outside a classroom on Sept. 1 and may be tried as an adult.

The community remains shaken and unnerved by the incident, which we knew could happen anywhere but had hoped and prayed would not happen here.

On Tuesday afternoon in High Point, a potential reprise of the tragedy at Mount Tabor was averted, thanks to quick responses by both the community and police.

Acting on a variety of tips from parents, teachers, students and others, High Point police say they had identified a Southwest Guilford High School student, Kayshaun Williams, as the source of the threats by 11 p.m. Monday.

Posts on the photo and video messaging app Snapchat featured photos of pistols and rifles and targeted Southwest, Andrews, Southern, Southeast and Northeast with threats.

Police charged Williams with false report of mass violence on educational property, a felony. At press time, he was still being held in the Guilford County jail in High Point with his bail set at $250,000, the News & Record’s Jamie Biggs reported.

Police found no firearms at Williams’ home and said the Snapchat images of guns had been copied from the internet.

But, as the awful outcome at Mount Tabor made clear, every threat must be taken seriously.

And the community did precisely that.

High Point Police Chief Travis Stroud stressed the importance of the public’s help at a news conference.

Police also closely coordinated with Guilford County Schools officials to take the necessary safety precautions.

Police do not suspect any gang connections to the threats. But one common thread in this case and the shooting at Mount Tabor is the motivation. Both instances appear to be rooted in personal conflicts.

At a hearing last week in the case of Maurice Evans, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill said the Mount Tabor shooting resulted from a long-time dispute.

Similarly, High Point Police Capt. Curtis Cheeks cited “a personality conflict between Williams and unidentified students.”

Where are our children learning that the best way to settle differences is to shoot someone?

Is this the example that we’re setting as adults?

As for the five schools that appeared as targets on Snapchat, the speed and coordination of the reaction by police and school officials was impressive.

So was the critical role the public played.

We’ve heard time and again from police that they are most effective when the community supports and aids their efforts. This was a perfect example of that.

As for whether Kayshaun Williams would have at some point acted on his threats, it appears not. But given the troubling level of gun violence in our community, who can know for sure?

There has been a spate of false threats to North Carolina schools in the wake of the Mount Tabor shooting.

Just this week, a 17-year-old in Johnston County was taken into custody after being accused of posting threats against three high schools, the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release Thursday. Authorities say they do not consider the threats credible.

Also this week, one other school in Johnston County and at least six schools in Wake County received phone threats that later were determined to be hoaxes.

Even though lockdowns cost instructional time and cause unnecessary anxiety, police have to take all threats as the real thing until they can confirm otherwise.

The people who make these calls also need to be held accountable. This is not a game.

As for the Guilford County threats, the fact that the community and police partnered so quickly and so effectively was encouraging and reassuring.

The fact that they had to was not.

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