Long Island, NY – Last spring, Long Island was a hotbed of COVID-19, and although cases are once again spiking in New York, efforts to curtail the virus resulted in the Empire State eventually ranking fourth in the lowest infection rates nationwide. That achievement helped many Suffolk County businesses keep the lights on.
“A coalition of labor, government and private business leaders sat together with the people of Suffolk County to put a model together to make sure everybody was protected,” Matthew Aracich, president of the Building & Construction Trade Council for Nassau and Suffolk Counties [NSBCTC] recently told LaborPress. “That was for commercial work, institutional work, construction work and also for retail.”
Panel discussions in April and May helped guide county members on how to use the best safety measures to keep businesses open and protect workers.
“We were very proactive to make this happen,” Aracich says. “One of the things we stated was [that] this is not a position of ‘union or non-union’— this is not a position of one trade or one type of work, this is so that everybody is going to have to follow the same basic rules.”
According to Aracich, there was no one-size-fits-all approach for how construction workers, retail workers and restaurant staffers had to confront COVID-19 , just an keen awareness about public safety.
“Those rules don’t mean that construction workers had the same policies as someone in a commercial space,” he says. “Those in construction have to follow their guidelines, and all the commercial workers have to follow their set of guidelines.”
The Building & Construction Trade Council adopted guidelines from both city and the state, such as testing, notifications and following quarantine procedures, according to the Aracich.
“I will have to tell you it was not only extremely effective in stopping the virus in its tracks and flattening the curve — we have one of the lowest infection rates in the country, instead of being the epicenter of it,” the NSBCTC president says.
At the time of this writing, New York is behind only Maine, Vermont and Hawaii in terms of low infection rates.
“Mask wearing is key, having cleaning stations to make sure hands are washed, [as well as] thermal readings, are helpful,” says Aracich. “When you go to a labor hall, the thermal readings will know whether you are wearing a mask, and it will tell you what your temperature is.”
The protocols were so significant, Aracich adds, that among the thousands of workers who helped build and construct emergency hospitals at SUNY Westbury and SUNY Stony Brook — none of them caught COVID-19.
“You had to drive in, register and take orientation,” Aracich says. “Every day you came in, there was a thermal scan on the forehead.”
Nassau and Suffolk counties derive much of their revenue from sales tax — keeping businesses open by following smart COVID-19 protocols helped keep money local.
“That is why working with prevailing wage and working in a local area with local workers benefits everybody,” Aracich says. “For example, a plumber in a territory that gets the most share of work has that registered as the prevailing wage of the area. That is dictated by the collective bargaining agreements by each labor union because they have more market share than anyone.”
While both the state and building trades mandates are there to keep everyone safe, Aracich believes caring for one’s neighbor should be all that is necessary for folks to follow the rules.
“Aside from being a mandate, it is a moral obligation,” he says. “In addition to that, when someone on our side wears a mask, it doesn’t only protect them, it also protects you. If everybody had that same concept, I think we can flatten the curve across the country.”
Aracich is thankful for the measures taken in New York and he has little tolerance for those flouting prudent safety measures.
“In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem says it is her right not to wear a mask,” Aracich says. “If there is a chance that you can be asymptomatic and you can infect someone that can infect someone else and they end up dying — I think that is sinful. So, for me, it’s a respect thing. Wearing a mask should be something seen as patriotic, instead of a rule. It’s no different than holding the door for someone behind you or saying, thank you.”