Interviews & Profiles

How the Hochul administration wants to help workers this year

A Q&A with state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon.

State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon is tackling wage theft as a top priority this year.

State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon is tackling wage theft as a top priority this year. New York state Department of Labor

State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon plays a key role in Albany, implementing laws aimed at protecting workers in New York while also advocating for the Hochul administration’s top priorities having to do with labor and the state’s workforce. In an interview with City & State, Reardon touted such highlights from 2023 as increased pay transparency and workplace violence prevention and laid out some top priorities for 2024, including adding additional tools to crack down on wage theft.

What were the highlights from 2023 in terms of legislation or regulations affecting workers? 

There was lots of really good stuff last year for workers. The first law of pay transparency, which required businesses with four or more employees to list salary ranges for promotions and transfers. It’s a really important law – hourly salary and compensation believed to be accurate at the posting of the job and also if the job is commission-based. The law prohibits employers from retaliating against employees if they discuss their compensation with co-workers. I never even knew that (retaliation was) legal, so now I’m glad that it’s not legal. Transparency is really about fairness, empowerment and the recognition of everyone else’s work, which ensure that every New Yorker has the information they need to make decisions. The law is another step forward in fighting the gender pay gap. We’re very happy to have this law.

What were the biggest accomplishments that directly involved your department?

There’s the workplace violence prevention law, which has been in effect since 2009. Also it was expanded to include elementary and secondary public education facilities, so public school districts, New York City schools, county and vocational educational boards are covered. In order to comply, they have to complete a workplace violence policy statement (how they view workplace violence), a workplace risk evaluation and a workplace violence prevention program, which should all be in place by May 3. The (Department of Labor) is providing free consultations for assistance to comply with these programs. We’re there to help them work their way through this if they’ve never done that before.

Then there’s the Warehouse Worker Protection Act from last year. Distribution centers have to disclose work speed and inform workers of their job rights. It protects them from job firing, especially for a failure to meet workplace standards. And employees can request that quota information at any time. Warehouse workers play a role in keeping the supply chain moving.

Then we have the breast milk expression policy. The law makes it clear that employees can take a lactation break whenever they have a need to express milk and mandates employers inform employees of the new requirements.

This year, the governor is seeking to shift from unpaid to paid breaks. We support this for all the reasons relevant to the gender wage gap. This acknowledges the support working mothers need. They should not have to choose between careers and caring for their children, and women still suffer from gender discrimination in the workforce. This is an easy shift that we can make.

What are other top worker and labor priorities for Gov. Kathy Hochul and you during this legislative session?

Absolutely, the enhanced enforcement tools for worker protection is really significant for us. We have new tools in our arsenal to help workers recover stolen wages. We always try for compliance first – many businesses don’t know they’re not in compliance, but when that doesn’t happen we have to have stronger enforcement tools and having a levy power would help us recover wages that employers are refusing to turn over. It’s not the first tool. We have a lot of carrots, but we need a stick as well.

The other thing the governor included this year is expanding registered apprenticeships. It’s one of my favorite programs at the Department of Labor. It’s beneficial to workers as well as to employers. We will be working to expand our registered apprenticeship program to incorporate those still in school and within our state agencies, which is a big change. The department will do a beta test for registered apprenticeships to allow us to bring in workers and give them the appropriate training they need. They’ll have a job while they train, and they get a certificate that’s recognized nationwide. It’s a very important piece. As all agencies are struggling to bring in skilled workers, this is a way to help them have the skills needed to succeed in our agencies.

What will be the impact of wage theft legislation passed last year?

In September, the governor signed the Wage Theft Act and that’s a real step forward for us. It turns wage theft into a felony offense for underpayment or nonpayment of wages. If you pick somebody’s pocket, that’s a crime. Well, if you don’t pay someone the appropriate wage, you’re picking their pocket too. Our Labor Department works with task forces, the New York Attorney General’s office, and local (district attorney) offices across the state to help build the criminal cases. We’re also developing a labor law seminar to help law enforcement officials learn about wage theft law. There will still be some wage theft cases that remain a civil case, but criminalizing it means that if you do it to your employee, you’ll be in serious trouble and we will pursue it with our partners in law enforcement.

What are the biggest takeaways from your department’s recent Transgender Employment Study, and what’s next? 

It’s up online. We issued a report, not surprisingly the study found that transgender folks in New York face significant employment barriers and training deficits. We always work with every worker to find the skill set they need to succeed in a career. The governor is proposing to extend a wellness nonbinary equity fund by $1 million to support people with more training, and we’re here to help. Our staff will work with any individual interested in workforce development training. 

What’s being done to crack down on child labor? Hochul’s State of the State book proposes creating a “Youth Workers Bill of Rights,” for instance.

We are doing quite a lot. The State of the State book proposed creating a “Youth Workers’ Bill of Rights.” We’ll sit down with the state Education Department and do that together. This is a top priority of our agency and one of the governor’s priorities. In March 2023, the governor started a child labor task force, which was really figuring out that lots of agencies have a different piece of the pie. The task force encouraged employers to take the youth worker pledge. When they take it, they get a sticker to put in the window. We have online complaint forms that are easier than ever to report a violation. We’re also proactive with teams that visit sites with teen workers that ensure there are no violations occurring. We launched a child employment hub for young workers to learn about their rights. A lot of young people and their parents don’t realize the labor laws that are there to protect them. I am grateful to the governor, who ensures that every young person who gets a certificate is informed of their rights at work and that’s the best way to ensure they’re protected.

Do you have a position on efforts by organized labor to adjust Pensions 5 and 6 to make them more generous for public sector workers? 

We talked about this in my budget hearing. The pension system is not under our purview, but Civil Service Commissioner Tim Hogues testified about it. It’s normally in his bailiwick. How to make state jobs more attractive to potential candidates, a lot of state agencies are having trouble finding candidates for our openings and we’re working with other agencies to fill openings, but we don’t really have any authority on the pension question itself.