New York, NY – Governor Andrew Cuomo, once celebrated by corporate-owned media outlets for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, is letting Workers Memorial Week slip away without enacting legislation aimed at establishing enforceable minimum workplace health and safety standards in response to COVID-19.
Fresh Direct driver and UFCW Local 2013 member Tim Cutler stood outside the governor’s Third Avenue offices in Manhattan on Wednesday, April 28, and talked about the ongoing coronavirus “pestilence” and the need for immediate action.
“Something needs to be done because it’s getting out of hand,” said Cutler, who has worked delivering food throughout the pandemic and lost his mom Dorothy Cutler — an executive assistant in the Mayor’s Office — to COVID-19 on January 23.
Approximately 50 of Cutler’s Local 2013 brothers and sisters have also lost their lives during the the ongoing pandemic. Statewide, New York has now recored over 52,000 COVID-19 fatalities and more are dying every day according to doctors and nurses continuing to serve on the front lines of the pandemic.
“We don’t want [the HERO Act] to be watered down,” UFCW Local 2013 Field Director Francine Streich told LaborPress. “We want to make sure that it passes as is.”
The Health and Essential Rights Act, or HERO Act hit Cuomo’s desk April 23, following yearlong debates throughout the state and inside the Legislature.
The devastated local is part of the NY Essential Workers Coalition, a group of more than 70 unions, worker centers, and community organizations representing millions of workers across the state agitating for passage of the HERO Act.
Empire State business interest insist that implementing enforceable workplace safety standards to guard against the spread of COVID-19, and other possible viral outbreaks, are bad for business.
Members of the NY Essential Workers Coalition who gathered outside Cuomo’s offices this week, had hoped to hand deliver a letter calling on the governor to sign the HERO Act, but were, instead, stopped at the building’s entrance by security.
“I think people are pushing back and they want workers to have to wait 90 days before they can have any legal recourse,” Streich added. “A lot of people can die in 90 days.”
NYCOSH — the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health — estimates that some 250,000 workers across the state came down with COVID-19 over the past year. Of that number, however, only 21,000 have applied for relief through the Workers’ Compensation System — and only about 1,000 of those have actually had their cases reviewed.
In addition to feeling unprotected on the job, workers who do get sick with COVID-19 are finding the deck stacked against them when trying to navigate a twisted Workers’ Compensation system that labor advocates say is “geared to shut workers out.”
“Our employers set up so many roadblocks [to getting relief], NYSNA President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez told reporters earlier this week. “We were told the virus wasn’t airborne. This was a lie.”
Another piece of pending legislation — Senate Bill S1241 — seeks to amend Workers’ Compensation Law and designate COVID-19 as an occupational disease. But it’s still in the Labor Committee after being introduced back in January.
Flandersia Jones, a Registered Nurse at Bronx Care Hospital, joined her fellow coalition members on Wednesday pleading with Governor Cuomo “not to waste one more minute to sign the New York Hero Act.”
“It is such a simple thing to do to honor our essential workers,” Jones said. “It is a necessary thing to do as more workers return to work. At a certain point, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What kind of society do we want to be in?’ Lets make sure our workers feel supported instead of expendable.”
Psychiatrist Monisha Savarimuthu, a member of the Committee of Interns and Residents [CIR], also called on Governor Cuomo to “do more,” citing the corrosive impact COVID-19 is having on workers throughout the state, as well as the possibility of another deadly wave of infection on the horizon.
“As a psychiatrist, I have seen the mental toll this pandemic has had on my fellow healthcare workers, and the mental toll it is taking on too many of my patients because they don’t feel safe in their workplaces,” she said. “I know we are all sick of COVID and we want to be over it; but we can’t be complacent. Even though we have vaccines, we have to stop the virus from spreading so that we don’t end up with variants that our vaccines can’t beat. We need to protect workers and we need to do it now. Right now, there is a devastating second wave going on at the other end of the world in India with over 200,000 deaths…it is tragic and should serve as a warning to us here.”