New York Daily News: Coronavirus protections for New York workers: Sen. Michael Gianaris

Originally published in New York Daily News on August 18, 2020.

ALBANY — Every day workers should be treated like heroes.

That’s the crux of a new union-backed bill being floated by Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) that would require businesses across the state to adopt enforceable health and safety standards to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Gianaris’ New York Health & Essential Rights, or NY HERO Act would direct the Department of Labor to issue protective standards to prevent exposure to COVID-19 that must be followed by businesses.

“Too many workers have already sacrificed their health for our community’s benefit,” Gianaris told the Daily News on Tuesday. “The New York HERO Act will honor their efforts by giving workers the tools to protect themselves while on the job.”

Protocols would cover a host of measures meant to keep workers safe from testing, mandating face masks and PPE, social distancing, hand hygiene, disinfection, and engineering controls.

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said the federal government has failed to issue enforceable workplace protections during the pandemic or respond to worker complaints, leaving it up to state governments to step in.

“What we’re trying to do with the bill is to provide something that would be permanent and would be mandatory and not just guidelines,” he said. “We can not count on the federal government for support.”

In addition to enforceable protections, the bill would authorize workers, whether unionized or not, to form health and safety committees that could raise complaints and report violations without fear of reprisal.

Supporters want to see strong penalties and enforcement mechanisms in place as part of the bill, which they believe would lead to increased compliance and potentially lower COVID-19 transmission rates and boost consumer confidence in the economy.

Workers from across the state welcomed the idea of more protections, saying they are needed to ensure their safety and prevent more deaths.

Beatriz Ramirez, a 41-year-old Mexican immigrant and mother of five, was fired earlier this year after contracting coronavirus and complaining that her employer, a laundromat in Queens, refused to supply protective equipment such as masks and gloves.

“I was afraid, it was awful because I had to work without protection,” she said. “I had to make my own mask with paper towels. This would force employers to make sure they provide masks and gloves and keep social distancing.”

Upstate farmworkers such as Ericka, a 38-year-old immigrant from Guatemala who works packing apples and fell ill earlier this year, would also benefit from the expanded protections.

“The fear is, one is scared of what one has already experienced, because one’s already lived it, it’s hard,” she said through an interpreter. “Protection is very important for us because we can get infected in the workplace so for us it is very important.”