Today, Governor Hochul’s Department of Health failed to designate COVID-19 as a continued risk to public health, which rolled back worker protections required of the NY HERO Act across the state. Members of the New York Essential Workers Coalition, a statewide group of over 75 labor unions, worker centers, advocacy groups, and community organizations that won the fight to pass NY HERO last year, have called for an investment of $50 million in the Department of Labor to fund enforcement of employers’ COVID safety plans, training for worker committees, and ventilation upgrades for small businesses.
On Wednesday, the coalition held a State of the Worker town hall, reflecting on the toll that COVID has taken on workers and the need for full funding and enforcement of workplace protections. Essential workers including food app “deliveristas”, laundry workers, Starbucks workers, farm workers, and journalists shared their stories of being forced to work without pandemic protections and employer violations of the NY HERO Act, and looked ahead to NY HERO worker committees as a long-term solution for workplace health and safety. A Starbucks worker from the first Long Island store that filed to unionize with Workers United, shared that worker committees would give workers a voice, a happier and safer environment, and most importantly, accountability from their employers. And a delivery worker expressed dismay that he had not learned of his rights under the NY HERO Act sooner, due to lack of state outreach.
The New York Department of Labor has received more than 53,000 complaints of unsafe working conditions during the pandemic, but many have gone uninvestigated, due to underfunded enforcement.
“With mandates lifted and NY HERO’s designation repealed, we are entering a new phase of the pandemic, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Workers are still exposed, particularly in communities of color, and they need protections whether cases are rising or falling. We must use this moment of recovery to invest in our long-term health. By fully funding the DOL, Governor Hochul can ensure that employers’ health and safety plans are sustainable and put workers first,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, Executive Director of ALIGN NY, which leads the NY Essential Workers coalition.
“This pandemic has shown us the importance of preparedness and the need for strong worker protections. That’s why the state must meaningfully increase DOL funding for enforcement and health and safety efforts — this funding is critical if we are to ensure the agency can meet the challenges ahead. That is also why the members of our union remain committed to working together with employers to continue to create safe workplaces,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
“WJCNY is deeply concerned about the decision to not extend the COVID designation. Today’s decision effectively ends the last line of protections low wage frontline workers have against COVID-19. The workplace protections provided under NY HERO are critical, long-term preventative solutions that will protect workers on the job and empower them to advocate for a safer workplace. Without this designation and enforceable standards in place, we are unnecessarily exposing workers to a preventable and dangerous illness,” said Emma Kreyche, Director of Advocacy, Outreach & Education, Worker Justice Center of New York.
“COVID-19 has demonstrated just how easily a new variant—enabled by inadequate safety measures and irresponsible decisions around public health and safety—can rip through communities, overwhelming schools and hospitals, putting countless lives at risk. The evidence is clear: even with vaccination requirements in place, countless people continue to suffer through the long-term debilitating effects of the virus, with countless more at risk. We must continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread. Withdrawing HERO Act protections when so many are still so vulnerable is reckless. As unionists, we recognize that workers are most often in the best position to determine what is best for them and their coworkers, especially in situations that concern their own health and safety. The HERO Act pushes exactly that, empowering workers to assess and implement standards that create the safest environment for them to work in. Workers everywhere are ready to do their part. Being proactive in enforcing worker committees ensures decisions aren’t made without the voice of those most affected,” said Susan DeCarava, President of NewsGuild of New York.
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