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What you need to know about the NC commissioner of labor candidates

<p>Democrat Jessica Holmes (left) and Republican Josh Dobson (right) are running for N.C. commissioner of labor in the November general election.&nbsp;</p>

Democrat Jessica Holmes (left) and Republican Josh Dobson (right) are running for N.C. commissioner of labor in the November general election. 

This article and the accompanying image were originally published by The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and are republished here as part of the One Vote North Carolina student media collaboration. Copyright by The Daily Tar Heel. 

The November election is coming up, so The Daily Tar Heel is breaking down every state and local office on the ballot, from governor to county commissioner. Here, we broke down who the candidates are for N.C. commissioner of labor. 

In the November general election, North Carolina voters will elect either Josh Dobson or Jessica Holmes as the N.C. commissioner of labor for the next four years, replacing Cherie Berry, who has been in the position since 2001.

As the head of the N.C. Department of Labor, the commissioner oversees the operations of the department’s various bureaus, such as wage and hour, retaliatory employee discrimination, mine and quarry, elevator and amusement device, occupational safety and health and boiler safety.

Dobson, a Republican currently serving his fourth term in the N.C. House of Representatives representing Avery, McDowell and Mitchell counties, formerly served as a McDowell County commissioner for two terms. Dobson also serves as chairperson of the House's appropriations and health standing committees.

Holmes is a Democrat who earned her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since graduating from the UNC School of Law in 2009, Holmes said she has spent the majority of her career as a labor and employment attorney representing employees across the state. 

In 2014, Holmes was elected as a Wake County commissioner, and was elected as chairperson twice. 

In one of The Daily Tar Heel's surveys, UNC students said they cared about health care, student debt, civil rights, wages/labor, the environment and LGBTQ rights and policies. Here's where the candidates stand on some of those issues.

If elected, Dobson and Holmes both said they would focus on improving the wage enforcement process. 

“Every year, hundreds—if not thousands—of employees go to the Department of Labor related to the wage and hour bureau, with the expectation of getting help to recover wages that have been earned but not paid by employers, and there is a very low recovery rate,” Holmes said.

Holmes said the most vulnerable employees are those who do not speak English as a primary language, and employees who are afraid to complain due to immigration status, or if they need the money and don’t want to challenge their employers. 

As commissioner, Holmes said a lot of her focus has been around workers' rights and leading policies that benefit working families. 

For instance, Holmes said she voted in favor of a living wage of $15 an hour for all employees in Wake County. Holmes also said she led the implementation of Wake County’s first-ever paid parental leave policy, as well as its first-ever paid family illness leave policy.

"It’s very important that when workers work, they are paid the wages they are owed, in full, and in a timely manner,” Holmes said.

During his first term as a McDowell commissioner, Dobson said he helped ensure in the county budget that EMS workers in McDowell County were no longer penalized in their paycheck for working overtime. 

Dobson also said when he was appointed as a chairperson of the House appropriations standing committee, he fought to increase the minimum wage of all state employees to $15 an hour. 

Dobson said he doesn’t think the wage enforcement process is necessarily inefficient now, but he would look into ways of potentially expediting the process.

“I would expound upon what’s being done now, because when an employee is expecting a certain amount of money, and they are not being paid that amount of money, they are entitled to have that claim expedited as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Dobson said.

COVID-19 issues

Holmes said she does not think enough is being done to protect workers during the pandemic. She said it is a problem when hundreds of workers in a meatpacking plant are exposed to COVID-19 and complain about unsafe work environments, but few factories are inspected.

“I will work harder to ensure that when workers complain about an unsafe work environment, that inspectors actually go to those workplaces and inspect those workplaces," Holmes said.

Holmes said she would work to enforce the Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act, which protects workers from retaliation or termination when making a complaint. 

Dobson said he believes a pertinent role of the commissioner of labor during COVID-19 is to work with employers and employees to make sure that they are following the basic steps of what needs to be done in the workplace. 

He said he would work with employers and businesses to keep workers safe. He said he would do this by making sure Environmental Protection Agency-approved cleaning chemicals are used, encouraging workers to report safety concerns and making sure social distancing is implemented. 

Dobson said ensuring good practices during COVID-19 means increasing communication between the Department of Labor and businesses. 

Health care

Holmes and Dobson each said they would continue to advocate for expanding Medicaid to cover individuals who are not covered by Medicaid but also aren’t eligible for premium subsidies from private health insurance practices.

Holmes said although the commissioner does not have a vote or direct jurisdiction in Medicaid expansion, if elected, she would use her voice to encourage legislators to vote in favor of it. 

Dobson said he previously filed a bill to close the coverage gap in North Carolina, despite party opposition, and if elected, he would continue to use his platform to advocate for closing the coverage gap.

For more election coverage from across North Carolina, visit One Vote North Carolina, a collaborative of The Chronicle and six other student newspapers that aims to help college students across the state navigate the November election.

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