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NC Department of Labor will investigate deadly SouthPark fire

Firefighters worked to extinguish a massive five-alarm fire at an apartment building under construction in SouthPark on Thursday, May 18, 2023.
Charlotte Fire Department
Firefighters worked to extinguish a massive five-alarm fire at an apartment building under construction in SouthPark on Thursday, May 18, 2023.

What began as an ordinary day at an apartment building under construction in SouthPark this week became a scene of terror, after authorities say a truck used to install spray foam insulation caught fire.

The flames spread quickly, and within minutes, the construction site was ablaze, sending up a thick column of smoke visible for miles around the city.

City officials on Friday confirmed two construction workers died in the fire. One was identified as Demonte Sherrill, a father of four.

The North Carolina Department of Labor has opened an investigation into the fire and possible workplace violations.

Reporter Kayla Young joined WFAE's Nick de la Canal to discuss what the investigation might look like, and how immigrant workers are sometimes wary of such investigations.

Nick de la Canal: Kayla, you reported on another case of construction worker deaths in January, when three men fell to their deaths in the Dilworth neighborhood after some scaffolding collapsed. That was also at an apartment construction site. What’s happened since that incident, and what can that tell us about how these investigations usually go?

Kayla Young: One takeaway is that these aren't usually quick investigations into workplace fatalities. The most recent information that I have heard from the North Carolina Department of Labor is that the investigation into the January deaths in Dilworth is still ongoing and could take up to six months.

The state is waiting until the investigation closes to make any public comments, so we still don't know that much. All of the workers who died were Latino immigrants in that case — two men from Mexico and one from Honduras.

What we do know is that the Charlotte-Metrolina Labor Council contacted the state Occupational Safety and Health Division in March with concerns that immigrant workers, particularly people without work authorization, have been fearful of cooperating in that investigation. This is what labor council President Ashley Hawkins told me then.

Ashley Hawkins: We have heard from workers that they were told not to share videos, that they were told not to participate. And we do not believe that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has talked to all workers who were present at the time of the accident.

De la Canal: How has the Department of Labor responded to those concerns?

Young: I am waiting for a response from the department about their follow-up with the labor council. What has been requested is that the department provide workers “deferred action,” meaning that they would provide people who cooperate with the investigation a temporary protection from deportation. The idea is that workers would feel safer to come forward with that reassurance.

This is something that has been established on the federal level. The Biden administration announced a process for immigrant workers who have witnessed workplace violations to confidentially request what's called a statement of interest. That document begins the process of accessing deferred action in these cases. Carol Brooke, an attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center, told me that in North Carolina, however, there have been delays with implementing this process.

Carol Brooke: Although federal OSHA has come up with a process to issue these statements of interest, our state OSHA has not yet done so. But they are considering how they might put a process into place. And they are communicating with federal OSHA to try to figure out how they could act to provide similar protection.

De la Canal: Kayla, we don’t know at this point how many workers at the SouthPark construction site may be immigrants, but are there protections immigrant workers in North Carolina can rely on if they report workplace issues?

Young: There are different legal avenues that workers can pursue depending on their situation. But any employer retaliation or intimidation is illegal. Workers are able to consult confidentially with North Carolina’s OSHA division if they think their rights have been violated.

Brooke told me that the North Carolina OSHA division has also assured workers that they don't have any connection with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and they don't communicate with ICE about the immigration status of people who speak with investigators. So, workers shouldn’t fear ending up in immigration proceedings as a result of contributing to an investigation.

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Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.
Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal