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Supporters, Opponents Of HERO Act Await Action By Gov. Cuomo

The New York State Capitol
Jackie Orchard

Supporters of a measure to ensure more workplace safety during future pandemics are urging New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign the bill, which was passed by both houses of the legislature this week. The bill, known as the New York Health and Essential Rights, or HERO Act, requires the state health and labor departments to design minimum standards for health and safety during outbreaks of airborne viruses and all infectious disease outbreaks. It mandates enough personal protective equipment for all employees, and that there be provisions for safe social distancing and standard protocols for disinfecting work spaces. 

Senate sponsor and  Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, speaking during passage on the Senate floor, said thousands of essential workers, including health care, grocery store and other front line workers, became sick and lost their lives in the pandemic.  

“It’s called a HERO act for a reason,” Gianaris said. “We’ve lost too many heroes over the past year, and we are trying to save lives as we go forward.”  

All of the Democrats in the Senate and two Republicans voted for the bill, which is backed by nearly all of the state’s major labor unions that represent private sector workers. 

It was approved by the State Assembly on Monday.  

Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez is president of the New York State Nurses Association, whose members faced many obstacles and fears when caring for patients with COVID-19 over the past year. She says another key provision of the bill would allow workers to speak up, free from reprisals, if they believe the conditions are unsafe. 

“How many faced retaliation for exposing unsafe conditions,” she asked. “How many workplace policies and practices are generated by bosses in ivory towers who never know what the workplace is like while those of us on the frontlines are excluded from having input, from having a say in what’s necessary to protect life and limb?”

Employers who fail to comply with the new regulations, which have not yet been formulated, would face fines of up to $50 a day, up to $10,000. 

The unions and Democratic lawmakers are urging Governor Cuomo to sign the measure, but business leaders say the governor should veto it.  

The National Federation for Independent Businesses says employers have struggled during the pandemic to adhere to ever-changing state guidelines on safety, capacity, and when they were allowed to open and had to close. The group says while employers support the COVID-related restrictions, many are financially “devastated” by the loss of profits over the past year. 

Mike Durant, with the Food Industry Alliance says many can’t afford to comply with even more regulations.  

“What this bill is a slap in the face to every business that has operated during the pandemic or is operating now,” Durant said. 

Ken Pokalsky, with the Business Council of New York state, says employers weren’t consulted about many elements of the bill, including whether businesses might be subject to what the groups call “predatory” lawsuits. The measure allows the public to sue businesses that are perceived as not complying with safety rules. 

“This bill lays out a lot of land mines for small business owners to run into legal problems,” Pokalsky said.  

Sheridan-Gonzalez, with the nurses’ union, counters that there has historically been opposition from businesses to laws that might have seemed radical at the time but are now commonly accepted, including anti-child labor laws a century ago.  

A spokesman for Governor Cuomo was non-committal about whether the governor would sign the HERO Act.  

Rich Azzopardi says the state has already “advanced significant workplace protections against airborne illnesses” such as requiring special HEPA filters in commercial spaces, and has taken “other public health measures to keep workers safe.” 

He says the governor’s Counsel is “reviewing the legislation.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.