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Supporters, opponents of HERO Act await action by Cuomo

Tom Dinki
Local nursing home workers demonstrate for personal protective equipment in August.

Supporters of a measure to ensure better workplace safety during future pandemics are urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign the bill, which was passed by both houses of the state legislature this week.

The bill -- known as the New York Health and Essential Rights (HERO) Act -- requires that the state health and labor departments design minimum standards for health and safety during outbreaks of airborne viruses and all infectious disease outbreaks.

It mandates enough personal protective equipment for all employees, and that there be provisions for safe social distancing and standard protocols for disinfecting work spaces.

Senate sponsor and Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, speaking during passage on the Senate floor, said thousands of essential workers, including health care, grocery store and other frontline workers, became sick and lost their lives in the pandemic.

“It’s called the HERO Act for a reason,” Gianaris said. “We’ve lost too many heroes over the past year, and we are trying to save lives as we go forward.”

All of the Democrats in the Senate and two Republicans voted for the bill, which is backed by nearly all of the state’s major labor unions that represent private-sector workers.

The State Assembly approved it on Monday.

Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez is president of the New York State Nurses Association, whose members faced many obstacles and fears when caring for patients with COVID-19 over the past year. She said another key provision of the bill would allow workers to speak up, free from reprisal, if they believe conditions are unsafe.

“How many faced retaliation for exposing unsafe conditions?” she asked.

Employers who fail to comply with the new regulations, which have not yet been formulated, would face fines of up to $50 a day, up to $10,000.

The unions and Democratic lawmakers are urging Cuomo to sign the measure, but business leaders say the governor should veto it.

The National Federation for Independent Business said employers have struggled during the pandemic to adhere to ever-changing state guidelines on safety, capacity and when they were allowed to open. They said while employers support the pandemic-related restrictions, many are financially “devastated” by the loss of profits over the past year.

Mike Durant with the Food Industry Alliance of New York State said many can’t afford to comply with even more regulations.

“What this bill is, is a slap in the face to every business that has operated during the pandemic or is operating now,” Durant said.

Ken Pokalsky with the Business Council of New York State said employers weren’t consulted about many elements of the bill, including whether businesses might be subject to what the groups call “predatory” lawsuits. The measure allows the public to sue businesses that are perceived as not complying with safety rules.

“This bill lays out a lot of landmines for small-business owners to run into legal problems,” Pokalsky said.

Sheridan-Gonzalez, with the nurses’ union, countered that there has historically been opposition from businesses to laws that might have seemed radical at the time but are now commonly accepted, including anti-child labor laws a century ago.

A spokesman for Cuomo was noncommittal about whether the governor would sign the HERO Act.

Rich Azzopardi said the state has already “advanced significant workplace protections against airborne illnesses,” such as requiring special HEPA filters in commercial spaces, and has taken “other public health measures to keep workers safe."

He said the governor’s counsel is “reviewing the legislation.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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