Senator Jessica Ramos represents New York’s 13th District in the State Senate, which includes the Queens neighborhoods of Corona, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, as well as parts of Elmhurst, Rego Park and Forest Hills. She was born at Elmhurst Hospital to undocumented Colombian immigrants and grew up in Astoria in Queens, NY. Senator Ramos chairs the Senate Committee on Labor, where she’s fought to pass historic legislation to grant farm and domestic workers basic labor protections, tackle wage theft and worker safety, and secured $2.1B to create a fund for workers who have been excluded from pandemic-related relief.
LaborPress was highly honored that Senator Ramos took time from her extremely busy schedule to answer some of our questions regarding her career path, her experiences in different organizations on her way to attaining her current rank, and just some of her goals and achievements.
LP: What motivated you to get involved in politics? Was there anything in your early environment, growing up, that you feel led you to this career path?
SR: My first job was at a law firm on Roosevelt Avenue. I started answering the phones and helping clients dealing with immigration, wage theft, and labor issues there from the time when I was 14. That experience showed me how structural and closely related the issues my neighbors face are. Both my father and I were members of Community Board 3, and my experience working both inside and outside government emphasized how important it is, particularly as the child of immigrants, to be an active participant in government and politics. You need to use your voice if you want to be heard.
LP: What was your experience as communications director for Build Up NYC?
SR: Build Up NYC was an incredible coalition of three of New York City’s most powerful unions – 32BJ SEIU, the Building Trades, and the Hotel Trades Council. I was fortunate to use my skills as a union communications expert to organize and lift up workers’ voices to pressure developers. The affordable housing crisis and housing justice is certainly about rent, but it is also about the wages and job market created by building and maintaining housing. We want the workers who are the experts to get the wages, benefits, and protections that allow them to live in the communities they work in.
LP: Was there a connection between your working at Build Up NYC, an advocacy organization for construction, building, and hotel maintenance workers, and your eventual position as Chair of Committee on Labor?
SR: My experience running campaigns in the labor movement has translated to how I build strategy to pass my priority legislation. When I won my election in 2018, it was part of a wave to take out the IDC and built a true Democratic supermajority in the State Senate. I am proud that so many members of the labor movement supported my efforts to become Labor Chair, and hope that my record as Chair – which includes raising the minimum wage, granting farmworkers and domestic workers strengthened labor protections, improving workers comp and safety procedures, among other key pieces of legislation – has demonstrated a commitment to building a New York that works for working people.
LP: You stood up to Gov. Hochul re: easing housing construction in NYC due to not all labor unions supporting that move. What was the result of your action?
SR: Let me be clear: we do need to build, and build aggressively to deal with the housing affordability crisis. I do not think, however, that it is in anyone’s interest to compromise on wage and labor standards that keep workers safe. A construction worker is much more likely to deal with wage theft, injuries, or even fatalities on a non-union site, and consistent reporting from NYCOSH shows that it is Latinos who are dying most often on construction sites. We are working on some legislation to strengthen prevailing wage provisions I passed early in my tenure, and look forward to tackling the housing crisis when the legislative session resumes in January.
LP: You have been very active with the building trades. Could you share how this came about and some particular things you have done in your work with particular unions in that industry?
SR: I’m very proud that I have a partner in the Building Trades. In addition to securing record funding for apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, last year we funded a childcare pilot specifically for women entering the trades. We strengthened the ability of construction workers to hold general contractors and their subcontractors accountable for wage theft and directed the Department of Labor to keep an active construction fatality registry. We codified prevailing wage requirements and have introduced legislation to ensure prevailing wage requirements are attached to any projects receiving state loans.
In the upcoming session, I am looking to ban the use of e-verify to make it easier for day laborers to join the building trades. I want to play an active role in making sure wages, benefits, and safety standards are included in any housing package. And finally, I plan to focus on workers’ compensation reform to make sure that injured workers have a reliable lifeline so they can recover without having to worry about paying their bills or going back to work before they have healed.
LP: What specifically are your goals and achievements that you are well known for in the construction industry? How have you been influential in the industry?
SR: Because my district is home to so many day laborers, I am extremely focused on making sure that workers come home at the end of their shift uninjured and with every penny they earned accounted for. Safety and wages are both economic stabilizers for entire communities, so I hope that my legislative record demonstrates progress on both fronts.
LP: What are you most proud of accomplishing in your career?
SR: Overall, I seek to level the playing field between workers and their employers. New York State boasts one of the highest union densities in the nation, but it is still only roughly 25%. Through bills like the Farm Workers Fair Labor Standards Act, the Warehouse Worker Protection Act, my salary disclosure legislation, my captive audience ban, and my efforts to expand affordable child care and raise the minimum wage, I am trying to give workers a leg up either in the fight to organize their workplace or their ability to lift their families out of poverty. Often those things go hand in hand.
Senator Ramos now lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, with her two sons.