Interviews & Profiles

State Sen. Jessica Ramos is moving forward with her 2024 labor agenda

Temporary disability insurance, adapting to extreme heat, tackling wage theft and more.

State Sen. Jessica Ramos has championed key labor legislation.

State Sen. Jessica Ramos has championed key labor legislation. Courtney Harvier

State Sen. Jessica Ramos has championed a number of pro-worker measures since taking over the influential post of Labor Committee chair in 2019, including indexing minimum wage to inflation, cracking down on wage theft as well as enacting new protections for workers on farms, at nail salons and in distribution warehouses. This year, she has another ambitious agenda to protect workers – and she’s also deepening a partnership with Assembly Member Harry Bronson, the new chair of the Labor Committee. Ramos spoke with City & State about her new wage theft deterrence package, proposed changes to workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance, and where she’s already finding common ground with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration.

What are your top priorities as Labor Committee chair this year?

I think we can start where we have some common ground with the governor: reforming and updating temporary disability insurance. It’s been stuck in the same place since 1989. People on TDI only receive $170 a week, which is inhumane. Nobody can live on that money, so we want to update it to two-thirds of a person’s paycheck. We agree on that. Where we disagree is on the timeline. The governor doesn’t want to do it until 2029, and I think we can get it done starting in January.

I’m very happy to say I have a great new counterpart (in Assembly Member Harry Bronson). He and I have been working together before. We passed the Child Poverty Reduction Act and the prevailing wage bill for construction workers. Our other big one is (Temperature Extremes Mitigation Program), a bill I used to carry with (former Assembly Member Latoya) Joyner. We wanted to make sure workers are protected on days of extreme heat or extreme cold – emphasis on the heat, as we see the planet getting hotter and our past few winters have been milder. We’ve seen that outdoor workers really aren’t guaranteed to sit in the shade after a certain temperature, and that they have water readily available. We’re working with Teamsters and RWDSU because of the impact on farmworkers. They really work outside all day doing a lot of heavy physical work and they deserve to have access to water on big fields and time to rest.

And we recently introduced a wage theft deterrence package, which includes three bills in order to nip wage theft in the bud. This is going to give workers all the money they’ve performed. We do a ton of wage theft claims in our office and I fundamentally don’t believe every single person is a responsible employer and wage theft needs to be taken more seriously. Last year, the governor signed into law an increased criminal penalty for wage theft and established a $1,000 threshold. I’m taking that $1,000 and doing three different bills. Give the Department of Labor the power to do a stop work order on the business, not just construction sites, until they pay workers what they’re owed. The second one involves restaurants and one compels the state Liquor Authority to take away their liquor license. And the third one is for the Tax Department to be able to take away the business’ certificate of authority.

It’s hard owning a small business in New York City. Even the rent is too high for farms on Long Island. You talk to any small-business owner and it’s criminal what real estate is doing. We’re doing away with the character of New York. 

What role, if any, is your committee playing in the push for pension tier reform? Is that largely handled by the Civil Service and Pensions Committee? 

It is outside of my committee. That’s Robert Jackson’s committee. But it’s a really important issue. Us folk of a certain age, our generation is little guaranteed a secure retirement because of undervaluing of the pensions system. Civil service jobs are a big part of building the middle class and we’ve lost that. There are a lot of vacancies in civil service. It would be nice if City & State did a PSA or something. People need to fill these jobs. People need good union jobs.

Do you expect the building trades and REBNY to reach a deal on replacing 421-a this year?

We’re at the very early stages of this. I really don’t like this program. 421-a is a failed program. If 421-a had worked, we would actually have built affordable housing. No serious amount of affordable housing to meet the demand has been built. We can’t expect a different result from a failed program. I want to be sure we’re protecting labor standards in any agreement and we keep that mission in mind to build affordable housing.

Are you looking at making changes with unemployment insurance?

We do have a few updates to unemployment insurance. I think the biggest thing is expanding it. It was a lesson from the pandemic we saw that the basic unemployment insurance that the state administers only covers a certain amount of people. And in the age of gig work, I think we need to update and make sure more New Yorkers have that safety net in hard times. I want to create an unemployment bridge program that covers anyone who doesn’t fall under traditional unemployment insurance, as long as they provide proof of self, residence and lost wages. That should be a right of every New York worker.


What aspects of workers’ compensation are you exploring? You’ve passed legislation the past couple of years on language access and translation.

I’m very happy to say the governor signed our language access bill into law last year and I did that with my fellow Queens legislator Nily Rozic. It’s a really great bill that has already started to make a difference so that workers understand what’s happening in the language of their choice. On workers’ compensation, we have so many people who do dangerous work, construction workers and firefighters. We need a system that works for them. Stay tuned.

Are you involved at all in the push by labor groups to raise the state’s Medicaid reimbursement rate to cover 100% of hospital costs? 

I’m doing my best to help (state Sen. Gustavo) Rivera here. This is a really important issue for me. I’m here to protect my birthplace, Elmhurst Hospital. I still live two blocks away. We continuously want to disinvest from our health system to our detriment. Speaking of lessons to learn from the pandemic, our public system needs to be top notch. That’s not possible when Medicaid is only reimbursing 30% of the costs. It really hurts seniors, it really hurts kids. And I’m in a district with families. We want everybody to be able to live their best healthy lives. These cuts just hurt people.

Are you revisiting non-compete agreements after the governor vetoed a ban? Is there any possibility of a compromise there?

This is not my bill, but I’ll be as helpful as I can to (state Sen. Sean) Ryan. It’s something that needs to happen. I helped him chair a Labor Committee hearing about this bill and I’ll of course take his lead. I admire that Sen. Ryan is protecting the high standard of law to protect workers and give workers the ability to have as many economic opportunities as possible.

Will you revisit inflation-based minimum wage hikes after the final legislation included a number of exceptions and loopholes?

I want to end the whole upstate-downstate divide. It’s not working. I came back from Buffalo and Rochester about a month ago. Doing work upstate should not be valued less than doing it downstate. We want to make sure that we’re creating these jobs to keep our state in the best economic place. So I’m hoping to remove those off-ramps and just make sure New York state has one solid minimum wage. I was talking to a senator friend the other day. We ended up having to Google what the minimum wage in Washington, D.C., was and it’s $17.50 per hour (by July 2024). It’s embarrassing that the work in D.C. is valued more than the city of New York. I want to be able to compete and make sure New York is the best.