New York Daily News: Unions, politicians to incoming N.Y. Gov. Kathy Hochul: take action on COVID HERO Act

Originally published in New York Daily News on August 23, 2021.

ALBANY — They’re hoping for a hero.

A coalition of advocates, labor leaders and lawmakers are calling on the state Health Department and incoming Gov. Hochul to fully implement the NY HERO Act.

The union-backed law, signed by disgraced Gov. Cuomo back in May, sets enforceable health and safety standards for businesses in New York in an effort to protect workers against COVID or other airborne infectious diseases.

However, despite the growing threat of the delta variant, the Health Department has not designated COVID as “a highly contagious communicable disease that presents a serious risk of harm to the public health.”

That means employers in the Empire State are not currently required to implement basic protections for workers such as masks and other common-sense safety measures.

“More and more New Yorkers are returning to work and they deserve to be able to do their jobs without being exposed to COVID-19,” a group of unions and advocates including the New York Immigration Coalition and New York State Nurses Association, wrote to Hochul. “With school reopenings around the corner, it is crucial that the common-sense basic safety standards promised under the NY HERO Act be implemented in order to avoid unnecessary illness and death and another statewide shutdown.”

Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Assemblywoman Karines Reyes (D-Bronx), the lead sponsors of the law, also called on Hochul and Health Commissioner Howard Zucker to take action to protect New York workers.

“With surging variants continuing to wreak havoc, the NY HERO Act is more essential than ever,” the legislators wrote in their own letter. “New York workers deserve a safe, healthy place to work, and employers should know these rules are in place as soon as possible, so adequate planning can occur.”

Under the law, businesses and the state Labor Department had to come up with infectious disease plans earlier this month. The protocols must include steps for implementation and exposure controls, among other things, and no employer may retaliate against an employee for exercising his or her rights under the law.

The basic framework laid out by the Labor Department includes many familiar COVID protocols, such as daily health screenings, masks, physical distancing and disinfection processes.

The state also worked out industry-specific plans to accommodate employees in specialized sectors such as agriculture, retail and private education.

But without the designation of COVID as a serious public health risk by the Health Department, the plans are unenforceable.

“It is imperative to the health and safety of all New Yorkers that the Department of Health issues this determination as soon as possible, so the needed protections of the NY HERO Act can be fully enforced,” Gianaris and Reyes wrote.

A spokeswoman for the Health Department told the Daily News the agency is “actively working on a designation for implementation of the NY HERO Act,” while a Hochul representative said the incoming governor is “looking forward to tackling issues facing New Yorkers head-on, and the input of impacted groups is appreciated as she evaluates how best to create a stronger future for all.”

Read the full story at the New York Daily News here.