New York State

NY Legislature moves to make COVID-19 workplace rules permanent

Just when the Heroes Act takes effect depends on Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie Don Pollard/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

New York state could be weeks away from becoming the first state in the nation to etch pandemic workplace rules into law, but that all depends on Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing the recently passed New York Health and Essential Rights Act – aka the Heroes Act – into law. The bill is the latest example of how the legislative legacy of the coronavirus will affect the Empire State for years to come by requiring employers to institute workplace protections for “airborne infectious diseases.” This includes COVID-19, influenza, fungi and any other microbes that might threaten public health in the future, though business groups lament how the associated costs might hamper the ongoing economic recovery from the pandemic. 

Democratic lawmakers say they modeled the bill on existing federal protections instituted through the regulatory process. The state departments of labor and health will develop guidelines by industry for how businesses should provide things like PPE, social distancing, disinfection schedules and quarantine protocols – though notably not ventilation filters, according to the legislative language. Businesses with more than 10 people on staff must also establish safety committees to oversee adherence to the law. Most of its provisions take effect 30 days after the bill is signed by the governor. A section applying to the committees takes effect in 180 days. 

“We have one more step to go,” state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris of Queens, who sponsored the union-backed bill with Assembly Member Karines Reyes of the Bronx, said at Wednesday morning press conference. “It is just waiting for the governor’s signature.” That is not technically correct. Both chambers of the state Legislature passed the legislation this week, but it is up to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to determine when to formally send it to the governor. That is a typical practice in the legislative process because any governor has just 10 days to decide whether to approve or veto legislation before it would automatically become law. “We’re going to send it as soon as possible,” Heastie spokesperson Michael Whyland said in an email. Just when exactly remains to be determined. 

The governor typically signals to legislative leaders when he is ready to act on legislation. That sometimes involves negotiating changes called chapter amendments that legislators must pass in exchange for the governor agreeing to sign a bill into law. “The governor and the state of New York have advanced significant workplace protections against airborne illnesses including requiring HEPA filters in commercial spaces, spokesperson Peter Ajemian said in an email. “Counsel’s office is reviewing the legislation.” He did not elaborate on what potential issues, if any, the administration might have with the legislation. 

Business groups like the Business Council of New York State and the New York State Restaurant Association have lamented the passage of the law, which they say imposes unfair costs. “This costly mandate will ultimately lead to frivolous lawsuits, business closures and job losses at the worst possible time,” reads a statement from Justin Wilcox, executive director of Upstate United, a business advocacy group whose board members include Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce President Bob Duffy, who served as lieutenant governor during the governor’s first term in office. Current federal rules and the goodwill of employers should suffice in making sure workplaces across the state are safe, according to Wilcox.

Some workers like Amazon warehouse worker Rina Cummings beg to differ on the need for state action. She began working at a Staten Island facility for the online behemoth in October 2018. The vigor with which her employer tracked her movements made her feel dehumanized. “Treated like cattle,” she said at the Wednesday morning press conference. “You’re tracked everyplace in the building and they track how fast you work.” She added a memory she had from March 29, 2020 of when she would be fulfilling orders while she and other workers went without masks, social distancing and the other protections. “We were selling the items but it wasn’t available to us workers to use,” she said. “There are no laws to protect us. We need the (state) government to step up.”