Months of organizing by essential workers, labor leaders and workers rights activists have led to the New York HERO Act being signed into law by Gov. Cuomo last week.
The bill sponsored by Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) and Assemblywoman Karines Reyes (D-Bronx) requires businesses to have enforceable safety standards to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus and other airborne diseases.
“I’m glad that it happened, but I wished it had happened sooner,” said Joseph Branch, an executive board member of ATU Local 1056 and a 22-year veteran bus driver from Cambria Heights. “No one can foresee a pandemic, but it would have directly impacted us because we had bus operators that were told not to wear masks at the beginning of the pandemic because it offends the customers.”
ATU Local 1056, the union representing more than 1,700 bus operators, maintainers and cleaners, has its headquarters in Oakland Gardens. Approximately half of its members either contracted or were exposed to the virus, and on Feb. 12 and March 18, 2021 two more members died from it, bringing the tally of deaths to 12.
“We’ve had so many operators succumb to the coronavirus,” said Branch. “Had there been that consideration in the beginning, it possibly could have saved lives.”
Despite the amount of time it took to get the bill passed, Branch is happy it has been signed.
“It is important to have the groups that will do the studies and to have someone look at the conditions of the workplace,” said Branch.
Mark Henry, president of ATU Local 1056, agrees.
“COVID-19 has exposed the flaws in worker protections. Essential Frontline Workers safety is paramount today and tomorrow!” said Henry. “My members, who are transit workers in varying titles, put their lives on the line daily during the height of the pandemic.”
Pre-Covid, a standard number of riders included 60 to 80 people on a bus, according to Branch.
“Most businesses have a set number of how many people can go inside the business. How do you regulate how people get on a bus? People get on the bus based on need,” said Branch, an advocate for hazard pay for MTA workers.
“Filtration is definitely a concern,” added Branch. “We have standard filtration and we leave the windows open.”
Manny Pastreich, 32BJ SEIU Secretary-Treasurer, is proud to support the bill.
“This groundbreaking legislation will help essential workers who are organizing on the job and demanding improved health and safety protections,” said Pastreich. “Fast food workers have helped companies like McDonald’s and Chipotle rake in billions during the pandemic.”
Al Diaz, a fast food worker from Astoria, is planning on organizing a union to make sure his employer follows the law.
“We had to go on strike at my store to get Chipotle to take our Covid safety concerns seriously,” said Diaz. “It’s a huge relief that the HERO Act was signed into law and fast food workers like me will have added health and safety protection.”
Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, a group fighting for an equitable economy, considers the rallying of workers like Diaz as the key component that got the bill passed.
“The relentless organizing of essential workers is what got Governor Cuomo to sign the NY HERO Act,” said Silva-Farrell. “We are grateful to New York State Senator Michael Gianaris and Assembly Member Karines Reyes for their tireless and effective leadership on the NY HERO Act.