Dr. Monisha Savarimuthu

DOCTOR'S PRESCRIPTION: Dr. Monisha Savarimuthu, a member of the Committee of Interns and Residents, was among those who gathered outside Governor Cuomo's Midtown offices April 28 urging him to sign into law the NY HERO Act, which would create safety standards for private-sector workplaces aimed at preventing the spread of communicable diseases like the coronavirus.

Several days after the State Senate and Assembly sent legislation to Governor Cuomo requiring private-sector employers to adopt enforceable workplace protections to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, his Counsel continues to review the legislation, which has been a top priority of the State AFL-CIO.

Action must be taken by May 5, and if Mr. Cuomo doesn't veto it, the New York Health and Essential Rights (HERO Act would become law even without his signature, according to a spokesperson for his office.

Press Him to Approve It

On April 28, labor activists picketed his Midtown office calling on him to sign the bill, which is modeled on a similar law covering public employees statewide.

Pushed by a broad coalition of immigrant-rights and labor groups, it would also apply to future health emergencies related to an airborne virus. The legislation mandates that even non-union employers promote workplace-safety committees and bars retaliation against employees who raise workplace-safety issues.

Should the Governor veto the bill, he would have to explain that decision in writing. A two-thirds vote in both houses of the State Legislature could override a veto.

The bill calls for employers to be fined up to $10,000 a day if they failed to comply with the worker safety standards.

In the State Senate, the bill was sponsored by Queens Sen. Michael Gianaris, with Assembly Member Karines Reyes, a registered nurse and longtime New York State Nurses Association activist, sponsoring that body's version.

Business Opposition

The National Federation of Independent Business has opposed the HERO Act, claiming it would further undermine the ability of small businesses to adapt to evolving state guidelines on capacity and hours of operation.

A representative of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State told reporters in Albany that the bill was a "slap in the face to every business that has operated during the pandemic or is operating now."

Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi in late April told radio station WAMC he did not share the unions' sense of urgency, because the state had already "advanced significant workplace protections against airborne illnesses," as well as "other public-health measures to keep workers safe."

A few days after the bill went to the Governor for action, the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, released an analysis of the impact of the virus on the state's essential workforce. It found that 250,000 workers had been stricken by the virus, and that of the 21,000 who filed for Workers' Compensation, less than one percent had gotten their claims heard and been awarded a benefit.

According to the NYCOSH research paper, only 38 percent of the state's workforce has been able to work remotely during the pandemic.

No Worker Death Count

There is no registry being compiled for which of the 53,000 New Yorkers who died from COVID were exposed to the deadly virus on the job. According to reporting by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News, more than 3,500 health-care workers who were younger than 60 have died from COVID, 700 New Jersey and New York alone. 

Charlene Obernauer, NYCOSH's executive director, said, "We know that 250,000 workers have gotten COVID in New York State, so there is no better time than now for Governor Cuomo to showcase for the rest of the country how important standards are for workers during this pandemic. Worker Committees will allow for workers to talk to their co-workers and to their employers about safety and health in their workplace."

 "This pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in workplace safety," State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said in a statement. 

"For a whole year these front-line essential workers have been sacrificing their lives to keep us all safe," said Maritza Silva-Farrell, the executive director of ALIGN, a pro-immigrant-worker union-supported advocacy group. "It's our turn to give back and create these permanent health and safety protections."

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