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NYS law aims to fight workplace illness, empower workers

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at a

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at a news conference, Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in New York City. Credit: AP/Spencer Platt

Private-sector employers will have to follow safety procedures designed to slow the spread of diseases such as COVID-19, and employees will have a role in enforcing the rules, under a new state law.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday signed into law the Health and Essential Rights, or HERO Act. The legislation was supported by unions and opposed by business groups.

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

Among the requirements are 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 will be tailored to specific industries and apply to all private-sector employers regardless of the number of employees.

In a message accompanying his signature, Cuomo said "to ensure this bill is focused on safety…I have secured an agreement with the legislature to make technical changes to the bill, including giving the Department of Labor and employers more specific instructions in developing and implementing the workplace standards," such as a specific timeline and immediate remedies for violations.

The new law 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.

The law goes into effect on June 4 except for the safety committee requirement, which becomes effective in November.

The legislation’s chief sponsors, Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) and Assemb. Karines Reyes (D-Bronx), said it was responding to the lack of federal and state laws to stop the spread of diseases in workplaces and to the Trump administration’s slow response to COVID.

Gianaris said the new law gives "workers the tools to protect themselves while on the job."

Greg Biryla, New York director of the small-business advocacy group National Federation of Independent Business, called the law "incredibly complex, burdensome, costly and a magnet for predatory litigation."

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