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NYC Workforce in the Face of COVID-19: ‘We’re Still At Risk!’

October 7, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—New York State should enact a law giving workers a voice in setting contagious-disease safety standards for their industries, several city unions urged at a rally in Greenwich Village Oct. 7.

Seventeen of the 89 ATU members who have died from the COVID-19 virus were Local 1181-1061 members, the largest toll from any of its locals.

“Who are the experts when it comes to safety in the workplace? The workers,” Teamsters Joint Council 16 President George Miranda told the about 35 people and a couple dozen reporters outside the Lenox Health Greenwich Village clinic. “They are sounding the alarm because they are not safe. We all know the second wave is coming.”

“Without enforceable standards, we’re still at risk,” said New York State Nurses Association President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez. Employers who retaliate against workers who complain about unsafe conditions can’t be trusted to enforce standards themselves, she added.

“Every industry in New York State needs to have some kind of standards to protect their workers,” said Assemblymember Karines Reyes (D-Bronx). She is putting together a bill that would set contagious-disease standards for different industries in New York, with committees of workers having a voice in creating them.

Her bill, Reyes said after the rally, grows out of the New York Health and Essential Rights Act (NY HERO Act) introduced last August by state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens). That measure would have mandated that the state Departments of Labor and Health implement minimum standards for workplace safety, enforceable through significant fines, with workers having health and safety committees with the power to raise complaints and report violations without retaliation.

“A lot of industries don’t have protocols for communicable diseases,” including retail, restaurants, and manufacturing, Reyes told LaborPress. The worker committees are the most important part of the bill, she added, because they would give nonunion workers a voice they don’t currently have. 

The measure won’t see any action until the Legislature returns in January, she says. It hasn’t gotten a bill number yet, and its supporters are still working out its language. It’s important that the legislation have teeth, she explains, but not be so strict that it’s unenforceable, and the state Department of Labor needs to have the resources to enforce it.

“It should have happened a long time ago,” Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union member Beena Martinez told the rally. Her brother got infected with COVID-19 while working in a nursing home last spring, and she and their mother got it from him. Her mother died from it.

The NY HEROES Act, introduced last August, would have mandated that the state Departments of Labor and Health implement minimum standards for workplace safety, enforceable through significant fines, with workers having health and safety committees with the power to raise complaints and report violations without retaliation.

The HEROES Act, a national stimulus-package bill passed by the House in May, would have required the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to establish and enforce an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from occupational exposure to airborne infectious disease. But the Senate has refused to consider it, and President Donald Trump announced Oct. 6 that he was cutting off negotiations on stimulus proposals until after the election.

“Protocols are changing every day. We need to know how to keep the children we drive safe,” Vincent Buttaro, vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181-1061, which represents school-bus drivers, told LaborPress. Seventeen of the 89 ATU members who have died from the COVID-19 virus were Local 1181-1061 members, the largest toll from any of its locals.

“Right now, we don’t know what’s going on. There’s no communication,” driver Mario Jean, who spent 17 days in an intensive-care unit after he contracted the virus in March, told the rally. 

The situation was worse in the first days of the epidemic, he told LaborPress, when “we were illiterate” about the virus, and “there was no communication at all.” 

But the rules are still confusing, he continues. On Oct. 6, drivers got a memo saying the capacity permitted on school buses was being raised from 25% to 50%, but they don’t know what to do if a child is waiting at the bus stop when they’re already over capacity. There are no partitions to protect drivers from being spit on by “hyper” kids, Jean adds, and he brings his own personal protective equipment.

The city’s closing schools after coronavirus outbreaks in neighborhoods such as Brooklyn’s Borough Park creates similar dilemmas, he says. “If you have kids in Borough Park and they have to go to school in Manhattan, do you pick them up?” he asks. “They don’t tell you.”

October 7, 2020

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