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Supporters herald signing of HERO Act and its worker protections

Governor Andrew Cuomo's office
The New York State Capitol Building.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo late Wednesday signed the New York Health and Essential Rights, or HERO Act, calling it “a historic step forward for working people.”

The law sets enforceable health and safety standards to protect workers from COVID-19 and future airborne infectious diseases in the workplace. Supporters held a celebratory news conference on Zoom on Thursday.

Under the measure, the state health and labor departments will design minimum standards for workplace health and safety during all infectious disease outbreaks. Businesses will have to provide personal protective equipment for all employees, set up safe social distancing and disinfecting protocols, and ensure adequate airflow.

Stuart Appelbaum, head of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, is among many union leaders who backed the bill. He said nearly all of his members were declared essential workers during the pandemic and risked their health and lives while others were able to remain at home.

He said the law “crystallizes” what was learned during the pandemic.

“We have taken the best practices for protecting workers and we have set those practices in stone,” Appelbaum said.

He added that the law will “save lives” and ensure that the state is better prepared for any future pandemic.

But business groups oppose the new law, saying it places new regulatory burdens on employers who have struggled financially during the pandemic. They also worry that provisions that allow the public to sue businesses that are not in compliance could lead to costly and frivolous lawsuits.  

Under the HERO Act, employers who fail to comply with the new regulations face fines of up to $50 a day, up to a maximum of $10,000.

In a statement, the state’s Business Council said the legislation goes “well beyond what is necessary to assure that workplaces are safe for employees and customers during public health crises.”

State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, who sponsored the measure in his chamber, disputed the business groups’ claims that the law is costly and unnecessary.

“It is not a cost-saving mechanism to put your employees and customers at risk of death,” Gianaris said.

The recently approved state budget, he said, includes $1 billion in relief for small businesses.

Cuomo, who did not advocate for the measure, said lawmakers agreed to make some changes to the law that the Legislature will approve later in the session.

Sponsors said they will change the date when the bill goes into effect from 30 days to 90 days, and will give business owners a 30-day window to correct any violations before they face sanctions.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the governor said he was "proud" to sign the law, and called it a "preventative measure that will ensure we're better prepared for the next public health crisis."

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.