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Gov. Hochul Requires Workplaces Put COVID Safety Plans In Place

 New York Governor Kathy Hochul speaking at the University at Buffalo Aug. 31, 2021
WAMC screenshot
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New York Governor Kathy Hochul speaking at the University at Buffalo Aug. 31, 2021

As the Delta variant surges, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is taking new steps to counter the spread of COVID-19.

Hochul announced the designation of COVID-19 as an airborne infectious disease under New York state's HERO Act. On May 5th, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the New York Health and Essential Rights Act or NY HERO Act. It mandates extensive new workplace health and safety protections in response to the pandemic.

Hochul says designating COVID-19 a highly contagious communicable disease that presents a serious risk of harm to the public will give the HERO Act teeth.

"They developed the new standards, but they'd only take effect when the Commissioner of Health triggers it. I've talked to the Commissioner of Health, I say let's get it done. Back when this was signed, we all had this vision that the pandemic would be behind us. That didn't happen."

Under the law, all employers are required to adopt a workplace safety plan, and implement it for all airborne infectious diseases designated by the state Department of Health. Employers can adopt a model safety plan as crafted by the New York State Department of Labor, or develop their own safety plan in compliance with HERO Act standards.

Ken Pokalsky, Vice President of the Business Council of New York State, says employers went through this during the pandemic, under the so called New York Forward protocols.

"The model plan that employers were able to adapt is really basic protections. Wear masks whenever possible in the workplace. If masking is not possible, maintain social distancing of employees. You have cleaning, hand-sanitizing stations, the things that employers were used to doing, employees, frankly, were used to doing as well, during the height of the pandemic last year. That's what's required under the hero act in this in this current step. The law says that the state to Department of Labor and health can implement additional, more rigorous requirements. But those are the basic ones that are in place right now."

Todd Shimkus is president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.

"I know every business was required when they reopened to have a safety plan. And therefore they signed on to the state. You know, the state had protocols that you could use as your plan and you had to have a copy of it. So as long as that is, you know, sufficient, then it won't be a big deal. If that's not sufficient, then we get big problems.”

Pokalsky says employers should find the plan's basic requirements to be "fairly doable."

"There's somewhere in the neighborhood of 450 to 500,000 employers in the state, and of all varying sizes and varying sophistication. So, I think the challenge number one in this or almost any other labor law mandate, is informing all those employers as to what their obligations are, and I'm sure there's, there's some gaps, people weren't aware of the plan mandate and subsequently aren't aware of their current obligations. We've done a lot of that outreach. I know other business groups, as well have as well."

Again, Hochul:

"This pandemic, typically the Delta variant is continuing to rage. It's creating unsafe conditions in some workplaces. And if we want to get people back to work and get our kids back in schools, we need to have standards that not just are on law, but are actually enforced. And that's the action I'm going to take here today by signing this to write to the Commissioner of Health to make sure that the New York HERO Act, which has been talked about for a long time, but we're finally going to make it become a reality right now."

Officials say the law protects employees from retaliation should they make a complaint about an employer's failure to comply with the adopted plan. Pokalsky notes there is also a provision setting up "Workplace Safety Committees," which takes effect in November.

"Under the these workplace safety plans, if necessary, the state can direct more, more rigid, more more detailed requirements. We haven't seen those yet. We're, we're talking to the administration keeping a close eye on what the Department of Health, Department of Labor may be doing, and certainly doing a lot of work to inform our members as to what their obligations are."

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