ALIGN Hero Act

FOUR MONTHS LATER, IT'S FINALLY 'DONE': The HERO Act, which requires private-sector employers to implement measures in workplaces to prevent the spread of airborne diseases, was signed by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in May but no action was taken by the state Health Department to begin implementation. Governor Hochul, declaring, 'Let's get it done,' finally activated the law, under which employers who fail to comply face fines of up to $10,000 a day, pleasing activists from community and labor groups who pressed for its enactment.

Governor Hochul has instructed state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker to declare the Delta variant of the coronavirus to be a serious risk to public health, clearing the way for the state to implement a series of workplace protections as required under the HERO Act.

The legislation, which requires private-sector employers to adopt workplace protections to prevent the spread of airborne diseases, was signed then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in May but had yet to be implemented, even as the Delta variant surged.

State Slow to Move

The coalition of unions, worker-safety and immigrant-rights groups that had gotten the measure enacted had expressed  frustration that the state failed to issue the public-health-emergency notice required to make it operational.

Speaking at a Labor Day appearance in Buffalo, Ms. Hochul said the Health Department had "developed new standards, but they only take effect when the Commissioner of Health triggers it. I've talked to the Commissioner of Health: I said, 'Let's get it done.'"

She continued, "Back when this was signed, we all had this vision that the pandemic would be behind us. That didn't happen," adding that the latest wave was "creating unsafe conditions in some workplaces" and the state needed standards that were "actually enforced."

The HERO Act, which requires even nonunion employers to create employee workplace safety committees and established whistle-blower protections for workers, has been a top priority for the State AFL-CIO.

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

Applauds Her Timing

State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said in a statement, "I thank Governor Hochul for taking decisive action, particularly on Labor Day, to ensure the critically important NY HERO Act is applied as intended, to protect workers from COVID-19 and future communicable disease events." 

"It took too long to effectuate and too many workers have already sacrificed their health for our community's benefit, but we can finally recognize their efforts by giving workers the tools to protect themselves while on the job," said State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, one of the bill's sponsors.

"With the more-contagious COVID-19 Delta variant on the rise, we must take every active measure we can to keep the virus under control," said Assembly Member Karines Reyes, a Registered Nurse who led the push for the legislation. 

Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, the organization coordinating the NY Essential Workers Coalition, said, "The implementation of the NY HERO Act, the first-in-the-nation permanent airborne infectious-disease standard, is crucial to protect and empower New Yorkers to fight this surge in COVID-19 cases."

Few Have Gotten Benefits

A few days after the HERO Act was passed by the Legislature, 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, but of the 21,000 who filed for Workers' Compensation, less than one percent got their claims heard and were awarded benefits.

The non-profit organization also estimated that 150,000 workers had tested positive for the virus while showing no symptoms. Unions and Workers' Compensation attorneys have been advising those workers to file claims to document their status in case they later develop related medical conditions.

There is no occupational registry for which of the 55,000 New Yorkers who died from the virus or the 2.3 million who survived infections contracted it on the job.

"As the pandemic has highlighted yet again, workplace safety must be prioritized," Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said in a statement. "We need the enforceable standards at the state level provided in this bill to keep all working New Yorkers safe."

Public-Employer Mandate

A year ago, Mr. Cuomo signed legislation requiring government employers to develop detailed workplace protections to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

Under the legislation, plans were to be submitted to unions and labor management committees within 150 days of the bill's enactment and finalized by last April 1.

Public agencies must create a list and description of positions considered essential; descriptions of protocols to follow to enable all non-essential employees to work remotely; and outline how employers would stagger work shifts to for social distancing.

In addition, governmental employers need to detail how they will track when an employee is exposed to disease; set down the hours and work locations for essential workers; the identification of places where the employees designated essential can find emergency housing if needed.

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