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Bill mandates COVID safety rules for private employers; workers to oversee compliance

The bill would require all private sector employers,

The bill would require all private sector employers, regardless of size, to follow state-mandated safety protocols to stop the spread of diseases such as COVID-19. Credit: TNS/Mel Melcon

Private-sector employers would have to follow safety protocols aimed at slowing the spread of diseases such as COVID-19, and employees would have a role in enforcing the rules under bills adopted by the State Legislature.

Whether Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will sign the Health and Essential Rights, or HERO, Act into law wasn’t certain on Wednesday. The legislation passed the State Senate and Assembly with comfortable margins earlier this week.

"The governor and the State of New York have advanced significant workplace protections against airborne illnesses, including requiring HEPA [high-efficiency particulate air] filters in commercial spaces and other public health measures to keep workers safe," said Cuomo senior adviser Richard Azzopardi, adding the governor’s legal staff "is reviewing the legislation."

What to know

Bill mandates state safety protocols for all private employers, regardless of size.

Requirements include PPE, cleaning, social distancing, air filtration.

Employee-led committees would oversee compliance.

Cuomo is studying the measure; not clear if he will sign.

The bills' chief sponsors, Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) and Assemb. Karines Reyes (D-the Bronx), said it was in response to the lack of federal and state laws to stop the spread of diseases in workplaces. The lawmakers said Cuomo correctly issued executive orders to protect essential workers from COVID last year after the Trump administration failed to act – but now a law is needed.

Under the legislation, the state labor commissioner would develop "minimum requirements for preventing exposure to airborne infectious diseases in the workplace" to protect employees, customers and the general public.

Among the requirements would be employee health screenings; masks and other Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE; break times for handwashing; frequent cleaning of shared equipment, furniture, handrails and other surfaces; social distancing, and improved ventilation.

The requirements would be tailored to specific industries and apply to all private-sector employers regardless of the number of employees.

The legislation also calls for employers with 10 or more employees to establish "a joint labor-management workplace safety committee" to police the employer’s compliance. Two-thirds of the committee’s members must come from the rank and file and the leader must be a worker.

"We need to ensure that corporations, who have made billions of dollars during this pandemic, provide adequate protections to their employees," Reyes said at a virtual event on Wednesday.

While the lawmaker spoke about corporations, opponents of the legislation said it would be "devastating" to businesses with 100 or fewer employees.

"This bill will have an outsized impact on small businesses who are hanging by threads because of the pandemic," said Greg Biryla, New York director of the advocacy group National Federation of Independent Business.

In the Assembly, the bill passed 95 to 55, with Democrats voting "aye" and Republicans voting "nay" for the most part. The exceptions included Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) who opposed the measure and Michael Durso (R-Massapequa Park) who supported it.

In the Senate, the vote was 46-17, with Mario Mattera (R-St. James) breaking with Long Island’s three other Republicans to support the bill.

New York's top union leader, Mario Cilento of the state AFL-CIO, said the legislation would ensure "employers take every reasonable measure necessary to keep [employees] safe on the job."

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