On Labor Day we recognize and honor the incredible achievements and many contributions of working people.
This year, however, is like no other. Parades have been postponed and celebrations with family and friends will include masks and social distancing. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all the workers who sacrificed so much for the safety and well-being of others. We can still honor the hard work of working people by acknowledging where we have been this year and where we need to go.
Workers in New York State have been, and continue to be, devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. Countless have become severely ill, and far too many died as a result of being exposed at work.
Mental Toll Lingers
Many workers are also dealing with the mental toll, constantly worrying about the continued risk of getting sick on the job and questioning how carefully their employers are working to protect them.
That's why, moving forward, we must keep workers safe, care for those whose lives and livelihoods have been impacted, rebuild our economy, and save the services New Yorkers rely on.
First, we must prioritize safety. The State Legislature passed a bill establishing safety standards in the public sector. Now, we need to build on that by passing the NY HERO Act, to require safety and health plans specific to COVID-19 for private-sector employers.
Reopening school buildings represents a unique challenge. We must have clear protocols for how and when school districts must close their buildings, and how health officials will perform contact tracing and initiate quarantines in the event of positive COVID-19 cases in schools.
In addition, all workers must have adequate PPE, recognizing the unique nature of certain sectors such as health care, mass transit and others where workers are in direct or close contact with the public. In preparation for a second wave, a 90-day supply of PPE should be in place, as well as adequate staffing plans, AND back-up plans.
Second, the state must step up when workers' lives, and livelihoods, are endangered by COVID-19. If a worker is exposed in the workplace, that worker should receive the best available care at no cost, as well as wage replacement and survivor benefits should they die. This can be achieved by establishing a presumption of workplace exposure to allow quick access to the financial security that stricken workers deserve.
Make Getting Help Easier
We must remove hurdles for workers to access quarantine and isolation and paid family-leave benefits. We must ensure prompt access to unemployment-insurance benefits by reforming the State's partial unemployment insurance standards to remove the penalty for part-time work. And, we must remove restrictions on eligibility for unemployment for voluntary separation, such as if an employee has a heightened health risk or is aware of unsafe conditions in the workplace. Regular increases to unemployment insurance are also essential to ensure those who are out of work can receive adequate wage replacement.
The pandemic has also highlighted the disparity between the rights of gig workers and employees, leaving app-based workers behind. But now, state administrative agencies and the courts have begun to reaffirm what we all know—app workers ARE employees. If there was ever a time for the Legislature to pass a comprehensive law to protect these workers, it is now. App-based workers should be treated as employees with all the corresponding rights and benefits, including the right to organize, minimum wage, Workers' Compensation, disability benefits and other basic worker protections.
Third, we must rebuild our economy. That starts with creating middle-class jobs. Opportunities include increasing investment in public transportation, roads and bridges, telecommunications infrastructure, offshore wind and other renewable energy projects. Also, adult-use marijuana can bring in a new industry with solid wages for workers.
As New Yorkers get back to work on a regular basis, we need to ensure working families have access to child care. As we learned at the onset of the pandemic, parents and families will need access to affordable child care to provide a safe place for children to continue to participate in their educational activities while supporting a parent's ability to go to work.
Finally, we must ensure that working people are not victimized again by the pandemic. When vital public services are cut, poor people and marginalized communities are disproportionately affected. Now is the worst possible time to reduce services which in many cases are lifelines for so many New Yorkers. Instead, we must raise revenue, by taxing the wealthy to ensure the continuity of services.
With bold leadership, we can protect all New Yorkers from the worst of the health and economic effects of the pandemic. This is not just labor's hope, but on this Labor Day it is 2.5-million members and their families' expectation.
Editor's note: Mr. Cilento is president of the State AFL-CIO
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