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Labor commissioner debate exposes stark differences on state reopening plans

Democrat Jessica Holmes, at left, and Republican Josh Dobson, right, debate in the Spectrum News One Hometown Debate series in the race for N.C. Commissioner of Labor. At center is Spectrum News anchor and moderator Loretta Boniti. (Screenshot from Spectrum News)
Democrat Jessica Holmes, at left, and Republican Josh Dobson, right, debate in the Spectrum News One Hometown Debate series in the race for N.C. Commissioner of Labor. At center is Spectrum News anchor and moderator Loretta Boniti. (Screenshot from Spectrum News)

Reopening the economy during COVID-19 is a hotly contested issue in the race for N.C. Commissioner of Labor.

The two candidates — Republican state Rep. Josh Dobson, R-McDowell, and Democratic county commissioner Jessica Holmes — would take drastically different approaches to that, and labor issues generally.

Dobson supports North Carolina’s right-to-work laws, deregulation, and economic reopening. Holmes, in keeping with a more liberal agenda, champions Medicaid expansion, a higher minimum wage, labor unions, and stricter guidelines for reopening.

Dobson has served four terms in the House, where he chaired the Appropriations Committee. Holmes is a Wake County commissioner with a background in labor and employment law, and holds a self-professed devotion to “fairness and social justice.”

The winner will succeed Republican Cherie Berry, who retired after serving four terms.

By law, the Department of Labor is responsible for promoting the “health, safety, and general well-being” of nearly 4.5 million North Carolina workers. It’s a large task. The leader of the department has wide authority over employers and employees.

North Carolina’s economy, shuttered by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in March, has yet to fully reopen. On Oct. 2, Cooper finally moved the state into a modified version of his Phase 3. While many businesses — bars, outdoor entertainment venues, theaters — were allowed to open, Cooper’s restrictions on capacity did little to help many business owners. Some will never recover from the financial drain. 

Holmes repeatedly defended Cooper’s lockdown. But Dobson, who backed several Republican-sponsored bills to reopen businesses earlier this year, said the shutdowns went too far. The state should focus on “feasible” safety precautions that are affordable for businesses, he said. He supports job protections for quarantined workers. But, he argued, farmworkers cannot remain six feet apart as they harvest crops and load trucks. 

Holmes blasted Dobson for a “disdain for regulations, science, and data.” 

“It is not OK for us to decide that CDC guidelines aren’t worthwhile or inconvenient,” Holmes said. “If CDC guidelines say workers need to be six feet apart, they need to be six feet apart. … We can’t make it optional for those workers to have a face mask, can’t make it optional to have social distancing.”

Holmes said she wants to reopen the economy as swiftly as possible while emphasizing worker safety. She focused on social distancing and other precautions. Dobson stressed the high unemployment rate, and promised to work with the governor to get unemployment benefits to people who need them. 

“For safety precautions, we’ve [ground] this economy to a halt. We have a lot of unemployment,” Dobson said. “If we’re going to grind this economy to a halt, we have to take care of those that are unemployed. … We get calls every week, every day from people who can’t get an answer.”

Holmes called for minimum wage increases, but said she favors an incremental approach. Dobson cited his work to raise teacher pay and the wages of group home workers. 

“I would absolutely advocate for raising the minimum wage,” Holmes said. “It’s not right that families have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet.”

Dobson was more skeptical. As a right-to-work state, North Carolina has the second-lowest union membership in the nation, behind only South Carolina. The labor department cannot raise the minimum wage, but it can set certain benefits for its own state employees. 

“We need to be very careful about unilaterally and arbitrarily advocating for a set number for the minimum wage for businesses across North Carolina,” Dobson said. “It sounds good as a political sound bite, but we ought to know what the unintended consequences are first.”

Dobson praised the General Assembly’s push for regulatory reform. 

“For small businesses struggling to make payroll each month and week, you can’t just pile regulation on top of regulation,” Dobson said. “There’s an inflection point where that small business person will just crumble.”

The nonprofit N.C. Institute of Political Leadership trains future public servants to serve in elected or appointed office in North Carolina. Its Hometown Debate series, produced in partnership with Spectrum News, focuses on political races in election years and policy issues in non-election years. 

The Dobson-Holmes debate was the third of this election’s Hometown Debate series. Portions were broadcast Sunday, Oct. 4, on Spectrum News NC’s “In Focus with Loretta Boniti.” The final debate will feature incumbent state Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican, facing Democratic opponent Ronnie Chatterji.

None will have studio audiences, because of COVID-19 concerns.

The series sponsors are AARP-North Carolina, the State Employees Association of North Carolina, Humana, the North Carolina Sheriffs Association, and the Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina.