The New York Health and Essential Rights Act was signed into law late Wednesday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, setting enforceable health and safety standards to protect workers from the transmission and community spread of COVID-19, as well as any future airborne infectious diseases.
Known as the HERO Act, it directs the state health and labor departments to create an airborne infectious disease standard covering all private employers within 60 days, which would take effect 30 days later. Businesses will have to provide personal protective equipment for all employees, set up safe social distancing and disinfecting protocols, and also ensure adequate airflow.
“Today we are setting a model for the country,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, an alliance of labor and community organizations. She said the legislation is the first of its kind.
“We are setting the standards for all these employers to make sure our workers are protected.”
More than 52,000 New Yorkers have died of COVID-19 since the disease hit the state early last year.
Several New York executive orders set guidelines for protecting some workers, plus sick leave, but they don’t cover everyone. The legislation itself explains how there’s “no federal or state law protecting workers from exposure to airborne infectious diseases in the workplace.”
The new law covers everyone from nurses to laundry workers. Maritza Ovalles, a member of the New York Nail Salon Workers Association, said she left the business after 20 years last year because she was afraid of contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to her husband and children. She lives in the Bronx and worked in Manhattan.
“Now I feel a lot more secure and I feel more confident in going back to work and [demanding] my rights so I can protect the health of my colleagues and all of the people who are working,” she said through an English translator, in a video press conference with other supporters.
The sponsors of the legislation, State Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Assemblywoman Karines Reyes (D-Bronx), joined them along with labor leaders.
“Labor laws change when there’s a monumental event and COVID has been a monumental event that has propelled our laws to change and really modernize for the world that we’re living in today,” said Reyes.
The law also permits the creation of joint employer-employee workplace health and safety committees in businesses with 10 or more employees
Stuart Appelbaum, who heads the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said nearly all of his members were declared essential workers during the pandemic, and risked their health and their lives while others were able to remain at home. He said the law “crystallizes” best practices everyone learned during the pandemic.
But some business groups opposed the legislation, arguing it places new regulatory burdens on employers who have struggled financially during the pandemic. The state’s Business Council issued a statement saying the legislation goes “well beyond what is necessary to assure that workplaces are safe for employees and customers during public health crises.”
Employers who fail to comply with the new regulations face fines of up to $50 a day, up to $10,000 in total. Members of the public can also sue businesses that are not in compliance.
Reyes said a lot of employers are already taking the steps required by the new legislation. “We just want to have the ability to enforce these standards and to have clarity so they know what to do to protect their workers,” she stated.
Gianaris added that the new state budget includes $1 billion in relief for small businesses. “We are very conscious of the struggle for small businesses, he said, adding that public safety and the health of workers cannot be compromised.
Cuomo, who did not advocate for the measure, said lawmakers agreed to make some amendments to the law, which the legislature will approve later in the session. These include giving businesses owners a 30-day window to correct any violations before facing sanctions.
“This is a historic step forward for working people and a preventative measure that will ensure we’re better prepared for the next public health crisis,” he said, in a statement Thursday. “I was proud to sign this bill into law and look forward to reviewing the new standards to protect workers and build a stronger New York.”