As COVID-19 Spreads, Essential Workers Push Bill to Enforce Workplace Standards

Three dozen essential workers — including nurses, bus drivers and sanitation employees — demonstrated Wednesday morning in Greenwich Village, seeking support for a bill in the State Legislature that would set enforceable safety standards in their workplaces.

“We have received no leadership and no guidance from the federal government,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Karines Reyes, who represents the Bronx’s 87th District. “The reality is that workers know best. They know what they need to keep their workplace safe.”

Reyes, a registered oncology nurse who has returned to work to fight COVID-19, is one of the sponsors of the proposed NY HERO Act, which would mandate safety standards for essential workers, including healthcare professionals and restaurant servers.

Mario Jean, a school-bus driver who was hospitalized for three weeks after contracting COVID-19, speaks at Wednesday’s rally.

The state already mandates some measures, including face coverings and limiting occupancy in indoor spaces; this act would permit employers including hospital administrators, restaurant owners and grocery clerks to establish regulations for their businesses exceeding these state requirements. The act would also require the state departments of Labor and Health to set minimum safety standards, including protocols on testing, personal protective equipment, social distancing and disinfection. Those would be enforceable by fines, which have not yet been set.

Even more central to Wednesday’s rally was the push to establish industry-specific committees to determine those standards, and to protect employees from retaliation for monitoring and reporting violations.

This bill, whose acronym stands for the New York Health and Essential Rights Act, is still in the proposal phase. It isn’t clear yet when it might go up for a vote. It is distinct from the federal HEROES Act proposed by congressional Democrats to provide a COVID-19 relief package, which is awaiting vote in the Senate.

Wednesday’s protest was held at Lenox Hill Greenwich Village, which has been a major COVID-19 treatment center, with an offsite inpatient unit that was built in May. It comes amid the White House COVID-19 outbreak, which is spreading into Washington D.C. The protesters believe that when it comes to pandemic safety, the federal government does not have the answers. “We cannot allow the example set in Washington come to New York,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of The Alliance for a Greater New York.

“Who are the experts when it comes to safety?” asked George Miranda, president of Teamsters Joint Council 16, which represents 120,000 New York essential workers, including freight drivers and sanitation employees. “Certainly the workers.”

“Having the federal government create standards … it’s like having the fox watch the chickens,” said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of New York State Nurses Association.

Sheridan-Gonzalez said she felt safer doing volunteer work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake than she feels working at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx today.

Sheridan-Gonzalez said that in early March, 80 percent of staff in the emergency room she was working in became infected with COVID-19, herself included. She says that despite a second wave likely approaching, Montefiore has yet to mandate COVID-19 testing for employees.

 Montefiore Hospital did not return three phone calls and two emails.

Despite her dissatisfaction with Montefiore’s safety measures, Sheridan-Gonzalez said the broader issue is inconsistent messaging from the federal government.

“The CDC keeps flip flopping,” she said. “Initially, we were told we don’t need N95s.”

Sheridan-Gonzalez said that powered air-purifying respirators are the best option.

“They fit over your head like a hood – but they’re expensive,” she says. But they can cost more than $1,000. “The next best thing is the elastomeric respirator – it looks like a gas mask.”

Essential workers, union leaders and politicians said that the proposed NY HERO Act is overdue.

“This law – it’s not supposed to happen today or tomorrow,” said Beena Martinez, a member of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “It should have happened a long time ago.”

Martinez lost her mother to COVID-19 after her brother, a nursing home employee, brought the virus home. She, along with six of her family members, already had COVID-19.

Originally from India, Martinez remains bewildered by the U.S. government’s failure to contain the pandemic. “This is America. This is America!” she said. “We need a better system.”