NC’s Labor Department and union leaders pledged to work together to improve worker safety and hold negligent companies responsible.
Labor leaders, North Carolina workers, and family members gathered at the State Capitol last week for Workers Memorial Day to honor the 189 NC workers who died on the job in 2020.
Loved ones took turns ringing the bell ten times until they hit 190, one for each of the 189 workers and once more for Jose Armando Maqueda Mejia, a welder killed in an Outer Banks bridge collapse in 2021. 2020, organizers said, is the last year in which the full death toll is known.
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The event was organized by the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, the largest association of unions of working people in North Carolina, and attended by several religious leaders.
NC’s Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson also spoke, the first time in 20 years that someone from the state Labor Department participated in the memorial. Dobson, a Republican, replaced longtime commissioner Cherie Berry after the 2020 election. Berry, also a Republican, had a fraught relationship with workers’ rights advocates in her two decades at the department.
Dobson and NC AFL-CIO President MaryBe McMillan released a statement ahead of the memorial pledging to work together to improve worker safety and making several proposals:
“The N.C. Department of Labor and the N.C State AFL-CIO share a common commitment to ensuring safe and productive workplaces, with the ultimate goal of returning workers home to their families at the end of the day,” they said in the statement.
“The loss of a worker impacts not only those co-workers left behind, but families, friends, and the community as a whole,” they said, and “we believe that every person deserves the opportunity to earn a living while working in a job that values their worth and their humanity.”
They promised, among other things, to:
• Request funds from the N.C. General Assembly to increase compensation for Safety and Health Compliance Officers.
• Include a bilingual preference on job postings for Occupational Safety and Health, Agricultural Safety and Health, and Wage and Hour Bureau positions.
• Amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act to extend the current six-month statute of limitation on issuing citations.
Maqueda’s widow, Crystal Maqueda, spoke about him at the memorial alongside her daughter and newborn grandson, whom he never got to meet.
“Armando missed our daughter graduate from college. He will miss our son walk the stage in June, having graduated a year and a half early from high school. He missed the birth of our first grandson,” she said. “He’s missed so much more.”
Maqueda, 42, was part of a team dismantling the old Bonner Bridge near Nags Head in April 2021 when the section of the bridge he was working on collapsed. The contractor, a federal investigation found, had improperly stored chunks of broken concrete on that section of the bridge without doing any of the necessary safety checks to make sure it could hold that weight.
PCL Civil Constructors, was fined $23,210 and found in violation of multiple safety rules by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“That is chump change,” she said, and called on people to write their state and federal elected representatives to fight for higher penalties and fines in such cases to prevent the next family from having to go through this.
“It’s the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe and healthy work environment for all its employees.”
Armando, she said, always wore a smile and never met a stranger.
“If Armando knew you, you had a friend forever, and if he didn’t he would still do anything he could to help you,” she said. “The best part of me was taken too soon as a result of bad decisions on his employer’s part.”