Assembly Member Karines Reyes has been a vocal leader since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, calling for various policies to respond to the crisis and even returning to work as a nurse last year. With schools allowing students to return to in-person classes, Reyes has continued her activism, working to spread information and resources about back to school. She also has been supporting workers through her continued advocacy for the NY Hero Act, not to mention the other bills she sponsored that tackle mental health and food insecurity.
City & State spoke with Reyes about students returning to the classroom safely, implementing the NY Hero Act and the other bills she’d like Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What have you been doing in office in relation to students going back to school?
We have been preparing parents with the necessary utensils for school and getting backpacks for kids, as well as school supplies. We’ve actually been giving out huge hospital-grade disinfectant wipes as well as children’s masks. We want to make sure that kids have well-fitting masks that they can wear to school and that are comfortable and that they can wear all day. We’ve partnered with Montefiore Hospital in order to do that and give masks to the community children. We are also having conversations with parents about children who are eligible for the vaccine, who are over 12 years old, and answering their questions and concerns that they have. I’ve been doing a lot of telling my own story, like my journey with my children. I have an 11-year-old who’s not eligible to be vaccinated, and I have a 14-year-old who was vaccinated. I think that gives some parents reassurance as well. We hosted an education roundtable right before the opening of the school year. I’ve met with my local principals and vice principals and talked to them about what their plans were for reopening and some of the challenges. If there’s anything too egregious, we would bring that up to the Department of Education. For the most part, we are keeping the lines of communications open with our local school leaders so they know that we’re a resource or a voice.
What legislative or organizing efforts have you been a part of outside of back-to-school efforts?
Of course state Sen. (Michael) Gianaris and I were the lead sponsors of the NY Hero Act to create health and safety standards for the private sector because we want to make sure that workers are protected but businesses stay open as well. We want to make sure that the Department of Health and the Department of Labor are giving the appropriate guidance to businesses in order to keep people safe and the surrounding community safe. That was signed by then-Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo, passing through the Legislature. In order for it to take effect, the Department of Health needed to make a declaration that COVID-19 was a highly contagious communicable disease that presented a serious risk of harm to the public health, and that without that designation, the legislation wouldn’t take effect. The Department of Health was still unable to enforce health and safety standards, and we know that without enforcement, the policies have no teeth. We sent the letter to Gov. (Kathy) Hochul, well then-Lt. Gov. Hochul as she was preparing to ascend office, telling her that it was important for the state of New York and the Department of Health to make this declaration so the NY Hero Act could take its full effect. She did that recently. That was a very important step in making sure that we’re doing everything possible to keep people safe.
What are your thoughts on the implementation of the NY Hero Act since it was signed into law in May?
When it was signed into law, we didn’t have that designation, so the implementation was nonexistent. The Department of Labor has, since we’ve made the declaration, started to implement those standards. When we were writing the legislation, there were a lot of pieces that were taken out by Cuomo. We would have had a private right of action for workers if they had employers that were unwilling to uphold the standards and keep them safe. Some of those things were removed. I think that the previous governor never wanted to make that declaration because it was a way of controlling the outcome. He signed the legislation that I think he never wanted to sign, but by not making the declaration, we wouldn’t have had to implement it. With Hochul, the conversation has been very different. The collaboration is markedly different than there was with the Cuomo administration. She has been working in a spirit of collaboration and making sure that we do everything possible to keep people safe and keep New York healthy, and that has been the difference.
What else has your office been working on recently?
We would like the Department of Health to submit a state plan amendment to modernize the state plan for Medicaid. That would allow for us to tap into federal funds and be able to bill the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) for services rendered in schools for children that don’t have individualized education programs (IEPs). So currently, the Department of Education and the Department of Health can only bill Medicaid for services that they provide to children that have IEPs. But in many of our communities, parents may not see IEPs because they’re kind of taboo, and parents don’t want their child labeled. We are not providing services for children who don’t have a clinical diagnosis. I think at a time where we’re going to see an increase in mental health disturbances for children, we should be working on ways to expand clinical services for all students. This will allow the state of New York to expand and bill for services rendered to students who don’t have IEPs. We sent the letter to the governor because she can, through an executive order, have the Department of Health start working on that state plan amendment. We were strategizing whether if we didn’t have a new governor, we were going to try and legislate that process. Again, because Hochul has been so collaborative, I think that we can work in partnership to make this happen. Fifteen other states have done it; I think it’s time for New York to modernize its state plan, and that’s something that I’m going to be pushing for.
We had two other bills that were passed that I think are very important to the current climate that weren’t signed by the previous governor, so we’re hoping that Hochul will take a look at those. One was a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) bill that would enroll New York state in the restaurant meals program, and it would allow for SNAP recipients to use those benefits at qualifying restaurants and delis. That passed the state Senate and the state Assembly, and it’s just waiting for the governor’s signature. I think it’s a good way for restaurants to get back on their feet as well so they have a different stream of revenue. It would really help address some of the food insecurity, particularly for our seniors, our homeless population and our disabled population who may not be able to prepare their own meals. We also passed through the Legislature the civil services diversity study bill. I think this is a conversation that has been very prominent lately as the governor has been making her appointments, that there’s very little Latino representation in state government. This bill would look into the civil service exams to see why there’s so little Latino representation in those fields and civil services. It’s just a study, but it’s been something that’s been talked about for 15 years. We were finally able to pass it through the Assembly and the state Senate, and we’ll hope the governor would sign that as well. One of my priorities next year is going to be the New York for All Act. It’s going to be a difficult year because I understand it’s an election year, but it would prevent local and state law enforcement agencies from colluding with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We’ve seen a lot of our undocumented residents detained, oftentimes indefinitely without any charges, and law enforcement finding ways to pick people up. We want to make sure that that’s not a practice that continues in the state of New York.