A bill in New York’s state Senate would provide much-needed workplace protections from the coronavirus and future airborne pathogens, filling a void left by inaction at the federal level during the previous administration.

New York’s state legislature is considering a bill that would provide workplace protections against the coronavirus, a welcome source of safety for Syracuse Local 2213’s call center members.

“Too many workers have already sacrificed their health for our community’s benefit,” said state Senator Michael Gianaris, a co-sponsor of the bill. “The New York HERO Act will honor their efforts by giving the workers the tools to protect themselves while on the job.”

The New York Health and Essential Rights Act, or HERO Act, would direct the Departments of Labor and Health to issue airborne infectious disease standards for businesses including protocols on testing, staffing, personal protective equipment, social distancing and other issues. The standards would be permanent and crafted by industry-specific worker committees that would also provide training and input for implementation.

"Passing a permanent airborne pathogens standard will not just make New York workers safer during this pandemic, but for the next one as well. It will improve working conditions for New York workers, while removing uncertainty for many small businesses in responding to this crisis," the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health said in a statement.

The bill also includes anti-retaliation measures that allow workers to call out employers without fear of reprisal, and includes fines for employers who don’t adopt a standard, as well as for those who violate their plan once it’s been adopted.

“Right now, unlike public sector workers who have protections, there are no statutory protocols for private sector workers in terms of how to respond to infectious diseases,” said Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO. “If this pandemic has taught us anything, with tens of thousands of workers succumbing to this virus, it’s that we need to make the health and safety of workers a priority.”

The bill passed the Senate in early March and is awaiting action in the Assembly.

The HERO Act’s impact on IBEW members will vary based on the industry and their collective bargaining agreements, said International Representative Jenn Schneider. For members of Syracuse Local 2213, the benefits would be substantial.

“All of my members work in call centers. Legislation such as the HERO act would making going back into the offices, our ultimate goal, much safer,” said Local 2213 Business Manager Barb Carson. “I’m definitely in favor of it.”

Unlike members who work outside and may be able to keep a distance between themselves and other workers, Local 2213 members work indoors in a large room with 50 people, if not more.

“When we first started to hear about the coronavirus last year, everyone's anxiety went through the roof,” Carson said. “The fear was that it would spread like wildfire if even one of us got sick.” 

The roughly 300 members work for Verizon Wireline, in consumer and business operations, at seven different offices throughout upstate New York.

“Eventually, we are going to be back in our offices, but I don't think it will ever feel ‘normal’ again,” Carson said. “Our members feel a great deal of apprehension about returning. There has to be an obligation on the employer to make sure we’re safe. It's imperative that we have some sort of peace of mind that there will be protections in place and a responsibility to continuously uphold safety standards.”

Carson says her members have concerns about the aging buildings they work in, like the ventilation systems and processes for things like cleaning and wearing masks.

“It's been a long time since we've all been in the same place and although we miss our coworkers, it's scary,” Carson said. “Legislation like the HERO Act will make the transition smoother and put our minds at ease. Unfortunately, we can't count on corporate America to do the right thing. They need a strong nudge. Accountability is essential.”  

The HERO Act’s protections fill a gap left by the previous Trump administration. Despite calls for federal-level standards, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration chose to only issue guidelines with no meaningful penalties for failure to comply.

According to a report by the U.S. Labor Department's Office of the Inspector General, OSHA inspections dropped by half last year – despite a 15% increase in complaints.

Debbie Berkowitz, a workplace safety expert at the National Employment Law Project, told the Huffington Post that the number of inspections carried out in fiscal year 2020 was the lowest on record going back at least two decades.

“OSHA decided to shut down most enforcement for COVID-19,” Berkowitz said. “The agency truly disappeared. They should have done at least 12,000 more inspections.” 

The Biden administration, by contrast, has so far taken a more proactive and pro-worker approach. Jim Frederick, a former safety official with the United Steelworkers, was appointed to lead OSHA in an acting capacity and the agency has already issued new guidelines for employers and is considering an emergency standard.

Frederick said OSHA is addressing the concerns raised in the IG’s report, including hiring more inspectors.

“An OSHA inspection is all a worker has when the workplace is unsafe,” Berkowitz said. “The last administration tried hard to hollow out the agency, which means the Biden-Harris administration and Congress have a huge job to build the agency back.”

If the HERO Act becomes law, New York would join a handful of other states, including California, Michigan, Oregon and Virginia that have implemented similar measures to keep workers safe.