New York, NY – Governor Andrew Cuomo could soon end up becoming a hero or a goat depending on how he reacts to calls from labor rights advocates to issue a new executive order aimed at protecting workers throughout the state.
Supporters of the New York Health and Essential Rights Order — HERO — say immediate action is needed to better protect the 2.2 million essential workers who continue to leave their homes and go to work every day during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
New York remains the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. with nearly 27,000 fatalities, more than 345,000 confirmed cases — and the advent of a mysterious new COVID-19-related disease striking small children.
Despite all that, the clamor to reopen the economy — both here and across the country where the COVID-19 death toll is more than 85,000 — is intensifying. Corporate America has reaped trillions of dollars in successive aid packages that distributed $1200 crumbs and unemployment insurance to everyone else — and the elites want the working class back on the job.
Healthcare professionals in the COVID-filled trenches, however, insist that the virus is far from being subdued and is set for a deadly new surge in the fall.
“I don’t think it’s been fully internalized by our political system — how dangerous the virus is,” Sean Petty, a board certified nurse at Jacobi Hospital, said this week during a teleconference with reporters advocating the New York Health and Essential Rights Order. “It’s an unprecedented virus easily transmittable via air and surfaces. If you’re in an enclosed space with stagnant air, the virus can last on droplets for two to three hours.”
Without full testing, tracing and quarantining — “there is no way we can stop the spread,” Petty said. “Federal inaction led to deaths. We can act immediately to fix what is broken.”
Dr. David Michaels, professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, and the longest-serving assistant secretary in OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] history — said that every employer must develop an infection control plan. And it has to be done in partnership with workers.
“This is a massive worker safety crisis” and “needs to be treated that way or we’re not going to be able to reopen the economy,” Dr. Michaels said.
The New York Health and Essential Rights Order seeks to establish a fundamental set of workplace protocols that includes no brainers like guaranteeing proper Personal Protective Equipment [PPE]; social distancing; hand hygiene; disinfection and deep cleaning; transparency and quarantining.
Beyond that, HERO further aims to set up pandemic safety committees; protections for whistleblowers; and guaranteeing the right of workers to withhold their labor in unsafe circumstances.
“This is not rocket science,” said a thoroughly frustrated and angry Charlene Obernauer, executive director for the New York Committee for Committee for Occupational Safety & Health [NYCOSH]. “OSHA is not enforcing standards. Governor Cuomo needs to stand up and take charge of what is lacking at the federal level.”
HERO advocates have an online petition to help convince Cuomo to take action.
Bob Master, Communications Workers of America [CWA] District 1 assistant to the VP, said New York State needs “mandates no employer can evade.”
“OSHA abdicated its responsibility to protect workers in this new environment,” Master said. “New York State has blazed its own path. As we begin to go back [to work] en masse, we need the governor to step up. This has to be a comprehensive top-down and bottom-up approach.”
Beyond pleading with the chief executive to do the right thing and issue the New York Health and Essential Rights Order, advocates say “there will be many avenues we need to explore” — including organizing the community and workplaces into action.
“The momentum is growing,” said ALIGN Deputy Director Daisy Chung. “We will do everything that we can to protect ourselves and worker lives.”
On Saturday, May 16, members of CWA Local 1102 and other workers galvanized around the “protectALLworkers” hashtag will launch a car rally for all essential and excluded workers on Staten Island. The Noon demonstration will begin at Staten Island University Hospital on Seaview Avenue.
Up until recently, Danny Torres worked for the Valentino Carting Corps. in Manhattan. Working without any type of PPE, Torres managed to buy his own, but was still so afraid of potentially infecting his asthmatic daughter that he refused to enter his home without first discarding his work clothes.
“I was so scared of being outside, I couldn’t wait for my vacation to start,” he said.
Unfortunately, like many other workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Torres found he no longer had a job when his vacation time was up.
“Essential workers do the jobs that our society needs during this emergency, but the federal government has failed to protect them at work,” Teamsters Joint Council President George Miranda said in a statement. “Too many workers are not getting the PPE they need or are working at companies that are slow to react to COVID-19 infections. New York has an opportunity to put forward a model for the nation of how to ensure worker health and safety as the economy reopens.”
There can be no “higher stakes,” Petty warned. ““We know a second wave is coming; we need to act now” and “we need to be prepared to take any measures to protect ourselves.”