"We need this HERO Act to pass because without it, you can’t call us heroes. You may as well just call us suckers, because we have to go into work, because if we don’t, we won’t eat,” said Robert Williams, a chef who worked at an assisted-living facility in Queens throughout the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
As the numbers of COVID cases and hospitalizations increase across the state, Mr. Williams, along with health-care staff, laundry workers and other essential workers, Dec. 17 renewed calls to pass the New York Health and Essential Rights Order, or NY HERO Act. The bill would require the state Health Department and Department of Labor to establish minimum COVID safety standards for workplaces to protect employees. Personal protective equipment, social distancing, sanitizing and testing protocols would all be required.
The bill, which was introduced this summer by Queens State Sen. Michael Gianaris, would also protect workers who report unsafe conditions from being retaliated against.
Safe working conditions have often become the workers' responsibility, protest participants contended. Advocates described bringing their own PPE and sanitizer to their jobs because their employers wouldn’t provide them.
ALIGN NY, which held a virtual rally to provide a platform for workers to voice their continued safety concerns, was part of a coalition of advocacy groups urging the bill’s passage.
“Workers know what they need. There is no reason why legislators should ignore workers,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, the executive director of ALIGN NY. “After the legislation is passed, we will ensure that there are enforcement mechanisms."
Mr. Williams, a shop steward for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 2013, described being told during the spring to ration personal protective equipment at the facility where he’d worked for nine years.
'Risking Our Lives'
“We were saving PPE, we were making PPE, and basically risking our lives,” he said. “PPE is a bare necessity; these industries are making billions. It should never have happened, and it should never happen again.”
Kara Daniels, a Health Aide who has worked at Boulevard Alp Assisted Living Facility in Queens for more than 20 years, said she and her colleagues were not tested for COVID, and she feared infecting her six-year-old daughter. The facility still did not have enough PPE, she added.
"I'm scared, because I don't want to have to go through this again," Ms. Daniels said.
Patty Pinho, a Registered Nurse at Albany Medical Center and a member of the New York State Nurses Association, described the nurses being criticized for holding a two-day strike earlier this month. The union is pushing for increased staffing and additional PPE.
As the COVID crisis deepened, particularly upstate, “A lot of people said ‘Why now? This isn’t the best time to be going on strike,’ ” Ms. Pinho said. “During the first wave of COVID, nurses felt frightened; we had absolutely no say in what was going on and felt actually very disrespected. We had to strike now because the nurses have to be a part of the preparedness plan, for our safety, so that we can provide safe, quality care for patients and in turn help the community as a whole.”
She called on all essential workers to continue fighting against unsafe conditions and push for the legislation to be enacted.
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