NY Hero Act passes Legislature, creating standard for workplace disease prevention
The state Legislature may require employers to create a workplace safety plan related to infectious diseases.
Essential workers have been on the job amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of over 50,000 New Yorkers and is now well into its second year of existence in the state. Other employers have kept their workforces at home, viewing that as a safer space until the pandemic has dissipated.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the bill, called the NY Hero Act, is a step toward established safety procedures in offices, restaurants, stores and other workspaces going forward.
The bill passed the Assembly on Monday after being voted on successfully in the Senate in March.
“We saw how quickly an airborne disease like COVID-19 was able to spread through workplaces,” Heastie, D-Bronx, said in a statement.
“This is a lifesaving measure that will protect millions of workers who are the backbone of our economy.”
Advocates for small businesses said this bill will add to the financial and logistical burden businesses have shouldered in the last year as they've balanced economic survival and health safety during the pandemic.
"This bill will have an outsized impact on small businesses who are hanging by threads because of the pandemic and resulting economic conditions," said Greg Biryla, New York State Director for the National Federation of Small Businesses, who argued that small business owners were not consulted in the formation of the legislation.
If signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the measure would be the first in the country to mandate permanent standards to guard against airborne infectious diseases in the workplace, such as COVID-19, advocates said.
Over the past year, state executive orders and regulations set guidelines to protect workers from airborne diseases. But there is no specific or permanent state or federal law protecting workers from exposure in the workplace, lawmakers said.
What does it do?
The measure would direct the Department of Labor, in conjunction with the Department of Health, to create an airborne infectious disease exposure prevention standard for New York workplaces, broken down by industry and translated into Spanish.
It would outline minimum requirements for preventing exposure to airborne diseases and would distinguish between policies in place during a state of emergency versus non-emergency scenarios.
The standard would detail required procedures and methods for a number of disease-related measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, including face coverings, social distancing, personal protective equipment, hygiene and sanitation stations and protective shields and barriers.
“This legislation will ensure that millions of New Yorkers can do their jobs safely and businesses can reopen without risking more COVID outbreaks,” Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of The Alliance for a Greater New York, an alliance of labor and community organizations, said in a statement.
“That is how we will build our state back and better than ever before.”
What is required of employers?
Every employer will be required to create its own airborne infectious disease exposure prevention plan tailored to its industry that echoes the state standard. It should be posted inside the workplace.
Supervisory employees would be tasked with enforcing the standard in their workplaces, as well as other federal and state guidance related to infectious diseases.
Each workplace with 10 or more employees would be asked to form workplace safety committees, made up of management and rank-and-file workers, to raise health concerns and review policies related to disease safety.
Essential employees, especially in immigrant and black and brown communities, have often been forced to choose between health risks at their jobs and income for their families during COVID-19, Murad Awawdeh, the interim co-executive director at the New York Immigration Coalition, said in a statement.
“They have been risking their lives to treat those stricken with COVID-19, stock our grocery shelves, take care of our elderly, pick our produce, and more to keep this state running in a time of crisis,” Awawdeh said.
“They and all workers deserve to work in safe conditions without fear of reprisal or losing their jobs.”
Employees can’t be retaliated against if they report violations of an exposure prevention plan at their workplace or refuse to work there based on what they believe to be unreasonable health risks related to violations of the employer’s plan, according to the bill.
Employers can be fined at least $50 if they do not create an exposure prevention plan, and employers or individuals can be fined between $1,000 and $10,000 for violating an adopted plan.
Sarah Taddeo is the consumer watchdog reporter for USA Today Network's New York State Team. Got a story tip or comment? Contact Sarah at STADDEO@Gannett.com or (585) 258-2774. Follow her on Twitter @Sjtaddeo. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Please consider becoming a digital subscriber.