Interviews & Profiles

For workers facing extreme stress, injury or a temporary disability, Harry Bronson’s got a bill for it.

A Q&A with the new chair of the Assembly Labor Committee.

Assembly Member Harry Bronson is the new chair of the Labor Committee.

Assembly Member Harry Bronson is the new chair of the Labor Committee. Assembly

Assembly Member Harry Bronson is adjusting quickly to his new role leading the Labor Committee following the abrupt resignation of Latoya Joyner. But Bronson brings plenty of invaluable experience to the post, thanks to his past work as a staffer for the committee and his previous background in labor law. Bronson recently spoke with City & State about the issues he’s tackling in 2024.

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

We have a lot of work to do, certainly in the Labor Committee. We address workers rights in general, worker protections, we want to make sure people are getting paid what they’re promised to get paid, that they have workplace safety and unemployment insurance.

We want to work on safe temperatures in the workplace, whether outside or inside, the Warehouse Injury Reduction Act if someone is injured on the job and a number of workers’ compensation bills.

There’s also temporary disability insurance, which is part of the governor’s proposal. It’s currently a maximum benefit of $170, if you have an injury and it occurs outside work. But the max cap is $170 per week, which has not changed since 1989, which is ridiculous. The proposal is to increase it. Currently the employee share of funding is at 60 cents for every payroll, and we want to make sure that dollar amount does not go up significantly.

For the first 12 weeks you’re on, the cap is roughly two-thirds of your weekly wage. From week 13 to 26, it’s capped at $280. We do have some initial concerns about the $280 level.

How does this cap work and what is the intention there?

It’s tied to TDI, this also funds our paid family leave program. The governor is proposing prenatal care to be included in the paid family leave as a qualifying occurrence.

Are you working on anything specific to upstate?

A lot of our workforce development programs, which we are looking at, are relevant to upstate New Yorkers. The governor has established $1 million in administrative funding for the Office of Just Energy Transition. This year she’s proposing $2.5 million. We need to take opportunities for green jobs as we are making the transition away from fossil fuel-focused jobs and make sure that we have those dollars for upstate New York. Throughout the state people may want to move to a green industry. Workforce development is something upstate needs more of. We’re seeing a growth of jobs but we need to match the skill sets of people with opportunities. Focusing on workforce development upstate is going to be key to get families the opportunities to seize upon those jobs.

What else are you working on?

Certainly in workers’ compensation, we need to address the fact that because of the debt owed to the unemployment insurance federal trust fund, previous levels of unemployment insurance have not gone up – they’re stuck at 2019 levels. They would be up to over $700 a week if schedule increases went into place. In addition, if people are laid off, they only have to wait one week to get unemployment but they have to wait longer if they go on strike. We want to look into that.

And to receive workers’ comp, employees need to say they are dealing with (the) extreme stress of the situation. For law enforcement officers, all they have to do is show they’re experiencing extreme stress, which creates a mental health need for services, whereas everyone else has to show that the extreme stress that they’re feeling and experiencing isn’t expected in the workplace. We want to expand this so the burden on employees isn’t so difficult and all they would have to show is that the extreme stress they are feeling is a result of their work, not something above and beyond what one would expect to experience in work.

A couple other bills would authorize more hearings so injured workers would have hearings on medical and wage replacement. Another one would allow that would help workers get access to medical treatment quicker, help their recovery happen sooner and would also help them return to work. 

You previously chaired the Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry Committee. Are the policy issues that you covered there that are relevant in your new post?

When I took over as chair of economic development three years ago, we wanted to make sure we have trained people for those jobs. Now all of workforce development is in Labor.

We created an overarching objective. We are in an absolutely wonderful window of opportunity. We have an employee shortage, public sector and private sector people are desperate to find workers, so by having an overarching objective we can create intentional moves and steps to ensure we are getting people who have been marginalized and on the economic sideline for far too long the job training necessary to seize upon the opportunities we have. Many of those folks are in upstate New York.. Also we need to be intentional to bring along marginalized communities, so they’re no longer on the sidelines of our workforces.

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

I am deeply involved in Rochester, New York. Our largest employer is the University of Rochester, which includes the medical center. Our second-largest employer is Rochester Regional Health. We also have nonprofits in the area, a unique nonprofit long-term care scenario. All are in great need of a Medicaid reimbursement rate that is fairer. We’re fighting for a 16% increase. We took an increase last year that was good. Ultimately, this is the bridge that will lead us to re-basing so we have 100% reimbursement. By getting these reimbursement rates increased, that will help these health providers with what they should be getting paid. It will help them recruit new workers, and help them retain new workers once they recruit them. It’s important for their health care system, and it’s important for families that need health care, and it’s important for the workforce.

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

Our housing folks will take the lead on a lot of the housing stuff, which will be a substantial part of our discussion during negotiations of the budget. We want to ensure there are labor protections in whatever we do in the housing arena. Those involved in the construction of new units, whether renovations of SUNY property or other state-owned properties being used, we want to ensure workers are protected in that, for prevailing wage. In that regard, I will be involved in those discussions and my perspective is to make sure we’re building the units we need and make sure our workers get paid the prevailing wage.

Last year lawmakers tied the minimum wage to inflation. Are you revisiting that?

I’ve worked on minimum wage for many years, when I was on staff on the Labor Committee back in 2004. We have always asked for indexing tied to minimum wage. We finally got that. The difficulty is twofold under the current law. By 2026, if you factor inflation all the way through, people’s buying power would be that of 2019. So incremental increases need to be reevaluated. In addition, there’s an offramp where if the (unemployment) rate got to a certain level, scheduled inflationary increases would not kick in. That’s problematic. I’ll have a bill addressing those two concerns.

Are you looking at making any changes with unemployment insurance?

It hasn’t gone up since 2019, when it was only $504. There were scheduled increases but because of the debt of the federal unemployment insurance trust, those scheduled increases didn’t happen. We need to ratify that. And there’s a disparity because of people who are unemployed because of strikes, who have to wait three weeks to apply, whereas other workers only have to wait one week. We’d like to wait until striking workers only have one week as well. Labor leaders have raised issues about striking workers not being treated equally under the system as well as benefit levels.

Are you looking at the potential impact of AI on the labor force?

Under artificial intelligence, there was a $275 million proposed investment by the governor in her executive budget. That’s a good idea, but I’d like to make sure that in connection with actual work being done we have labor standards and protections involved. We have to be responsible in that we prevent job losses as we develop artificial intelligence and have that balance. We have to ensure that we protect the data of workers through AI. And lastly if there are any decisions being made on a current or new employee, whether to hire, promote or transfer, those types of decisions known as bossware are transparent, unbiased and that the algorithms do not result in an unintentional bias as a result of AI. This is a huge issue, and there’s a bill that addresses some of it.