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Striking workers' wait time for unemployment benefits shortened

Striking employees on the picket line in Melville

Striking employees on the picket line in Melville in 2017. Previously, strikers had to wait seven weeks before they could apply for unemployment. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The amount of time that striking workers must wait to begin receiving unemployment benefits has been reduced by a new state law.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the legislation into law on Thursday after negotiating changes to a bill adopted last year by the State Legislature.

Under the new law, private-sector employees can file for unemployment benefits after being on strike for two weeks and receive their first benefit check after a one-week waiting period.

Previously, strikers had to wait seven weeks before they could apply for unemployment and received their first benefit check in the ninth week.

New York now has the most generous unemployment benefits law for striking workers, according to Cuomo and union leaders.

“This new law will protect our brothers and sisters in labor at a time when we have a federal government that is increasingly hostile to the union movement,” Cuomo told Newsday.

New York is the second-most unionized state after Hawaii, though 140,000 fewer New Yorkers were union members in 2019 compared with a year earlier. The ranks of private-sector and government-worker unions totaled 1.73 million in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Long Island is home to about 250,000 union members.

Of the new state law, John Durso, president of the union umbrella group, Long Island Federation of Labor, said, “This is a game changer. It enables people to negotiate hard, to negotiate fairly without fear of how are they going to pay their bills.”

He and others said strikes in the private sector are rare and they are prohibited in the public sector. The last high-profile strike occurred in 2017 when delivery drivers and warehouse workers walked off the job at beer distributor Clare Rose in East Yaphank for nearly three months.

Workers only go out on strike “after their employer forces their hand by threatening to diminish their wages, benefits and conditions of employment. It is an absolute last resort,” said Mario Cilento, president of the state AFL-CIO.

The bill that was adopted last year would have allowed striking workers to apply for unemployment benefits after one week, the requirement for other employees who lose their job, but Cuomo insisted on changes.

Still, Ken Girardin, an analyst at the conservative think tank, Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany, said requiring strikers to wait two months for their first unemployment benefit check has served as “an incentive to return to work and paying them sooner could prolong strikes.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the one-week waiting period to receive the first unemployment check had been waived by the state Department of Labor.

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