Salem Radio Network News Tuesday, March 5, 2024

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Labor union asks federal regulators to oversee South Carolina workplace safety program

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — One of the largest labor organizations in the United States petitioned the federal government Thursday to wrest workplace safety oversight from South Carolina regulators accused of failing to protect service employees.

South Carolina is one of 22 states allowed to run its own ship when it comes to enforcing occupational safety in most private businesses — as long as the programs are “at least as effective” as their federal counterpart. Service Employees International Union argues that is not the case in South Carolina, where its lawyer says a subpar enforcement program and “skeletal inspection force” are preventing real accountability.

“Make our workplace safe. Because y’all need us at the end of the day,” said Shae Parker, a former Waffle House employee who spoke Thursday at a Union of Southern Service Workers rally.

Workers with the group, an SEIU affiliate that grew out of the Fight for $15 campaign’s southern branch, have been mobilizing colleagues across fast food chains, retail stores and warehouses to push for stronger protections. The USSW backed complaints this summer from Waffle House staff in South Carolina’s capital city over a faulty air-conditioning system and other concerns. Parker said heat exhaustion grew so severe among cooks and servers that someone vomited.

The USSW sent multiple follow-ups about the location’s conditions to the South Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration before getting a conference that ended in five minutes, the petition said, an example of the state program’s “overt hostility.”

The South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said in a statement that the state plan follows federal enforcement procedures, and works with groups — including the USSW — to provide free safety and health trainings.

“South Carolina OSHA is a proud State Plan and is fully committed to its mission of making South Carolina a safe place to work and live for all employees,” said Lesia Kudelka, the agency’s communications director.

Organizers also said in the Dec. 7 filing to the U.S. Labor Department that the state does not carry out enough inspections. South Carolina ran fewer inspections than expected by federal regulators in four of the five years from 2017-2022. The totals fitting for a state economy of its size fell 50% below federal expectations in 2018, according to the petition.

South Carolina conducted 287 inspections in 2022, or about 1.9 for every 1,000 establishments — a figure the organization said is less than one-third the rate in the surrounding states of North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, as well as the national average.

Furthermore, serious safety violations recently carried weaker sanctions in South Carolina than required, SEIU said. The state’s average penalty of $2,019 for all private sector employers in fiscal year 2022 fell below the national average of $3,259, according to the union.

The Republican-led state is challenging recent federal penalty increases, though a federal court dismissed its case earlier this year.

Thursday’s filing marked labor groups’ latest challenge to the South Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A civil rights complaint filed by USSW in April accused the agency of racial discrimination by failing to routinely inspect workplaces with disproportionately large numbers of Black employees.

The groups hope federal pressure will compel changes like those seen recently in Arizona. The southwestern state adopted new standards — including laws to ensure maximum and minimum penalties align with federal levels — after the U.S. Department of Labor announced its reconsideration of the Arizona State OSHA plan last year.

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Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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