COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina agency tasked with ensuring occupational safety is accused of racial discrimination by failing to routinely inspect disproportionately Black workplaces in a federal complaint backed by a new union that seeks to boost labor organizing across the South.
The civil rights complaint filed Tuesday marks an escalation of the efforts by the Union of Southern Service Workers, an outgrowth of the Fight for $15 campaign's southern branch, that launched last fall with pledges to leverage the collective power of retail, fast food and warehouse employees.
According to the group's analysis, the South Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration neglects industries staffed predominantly by Black employees compared to fields filled largely by workers of other races. The complaint said the agency conducted zero programmed inspections from 2018 to 2022 of food/beverage and general merchandise retailers — where Black people make up 45.9% and 37.9% of workers, respectively. One such inspection was allegedly done across the food service industry, a workforce that is two-fifths Black.
Construction — where Black people compose less than a tenth of workers — received 237 programmed inspections during that period, according to the complaint. The union said the other industries had the same if not greater rates of nonfatal injuries and illnesses compared to construction.
“SC OSHA selects sites for programmed inspections in a manner resulting in the disparate exclusion of black workers," Mary Joyce Carlson, the union's legal counsel, wrote in the complaint. "Moreover, this discrimination leaves thousands of low-wage black workers vulnerable to preventable injury and illness.”
The complaint asks the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate the state agency's process for deciding where it conducts planned, or “programmed,” inspections.
Lesia Kudelka, the communications director for the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said in a Tuesday email that the South Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration is reviewing a copy of the complaint.
Between chants of “safe jobs now," striking workers described hazardous conditions at a Tuesday rally of about 40 people outside a Ryder System Inc. warehouse in Columbia, South Carolina. The Union of Southern Service Workers said hundreds of workers in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia participated in the group’s first multi-state strike since the launch.
Fast food workers reported filing Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaints after getting burned on the job. Amber Biggs said she has been burned six times in her six months working at Popeyes, where her store lacks splash shields and long gloves. Trish Anderson said she got burnt when fryers at a Wendy’s caught fire and she was told to stay on the clock.
Sersie Cobb, a Ryder forklift operator since November 2022, said 100-foot-tall (30-meter-tall) stacks of pallets containing pasta packages block fire exits and often collapse. Cobb said workers say wood and parcels fall so frequently that they’ve taken to calling the occurrences “pasta parties.” When Cobb picks up the cases, he has no company-provided protective gear like hard hats or safety goggles, he said.
The concerns prompted Cobb and other employees to file complaints with the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Warehouse workers said inspectors came last week. Cobb hopes their arrival will bring changes but said they should have arrived sooner.
“South Carolina OSHA also has to be held accountable for being here routinely doing these routine inspections. It shouldn’t be on the worker to go above and beyond to seek safety,” Cobb said. “I shouldn’t have to come into my job and see unsafe things and drive a wedge between me and my other coworkers.”
In a statement Tuesday, Ryder System Inc. acknowledged the allegations and said it is working closely with the occupational safety agency. The company said it has “well established” mechanisms to “prevent, detect and/or correct any concerns about employee health, safety, and security in all of our facilities.”
Local leaders celebrated Tuesday’s action as an example of a revitalized labor movement. Charles Brave Jr., the president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, said there’s a “new wave” in the state with the lowest reported unionization rate in the country.
Organizers looking to turn high levels of union approval into on-the-ground victories have been drawing cross-sector support in the months following the launch. The Union of Southern Service Workers joined the only two full-time workers at a Dollar General outside Columbia earlier this year, The Post and Courier reported. In Tuesday's filing, the union said the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration closed a complaint of mold and infestation at that store after officials shared photos of a different location without the alleged violations.
The union plans to continue filing complaints as organizers intensify their focus on workplace safety. Carlson said the legal team is looking into how safety regulations are enforced throughout the Southeast, where many of the named corporations have big operations.
“We want to start taking them seriously,” Carlson said.
South Carolina is one of 22 states that has its own agency overseeing occupational safety in the private sector. The complaint asks federal officials to ensure the state’s compliance or undertake regulation themselves.
James 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.