With large numbers of people returning to work after New York City deployed Phase 3 of its reopening last week, many have raised concerns about the need to prevent workplaces from becoming COVID-19 contagion hotspots.
Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s assurances that most workers are following the rules to guarantee the wellbeing of the gradually-returning workforce, leaders and activists say many employers are circumventing those guidelines aimed at protecting employees.
At a demonstration held in Jackson Heights last week, Maritiza Silva-Farrell, director of the non-profit ALIGN NY, said protections for essential workers – many of whom are Latino and Black – are still far from ideal.
“COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising to new heights across the country. Yet, our essential workers – mostly black and Latino workers – remain inadequately protected months after the New York shutdown,” the activist said in a statement. “How many more deaths among our frontline workers is it going to take to provide basic, common-sense protections?”
Sonia Singh, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, pointed out that a majority of the 20,000 New Yorkers who have died in the pandemic were Latinos and other people of color, and that protections are still lacking even as thousands of workers return to their duties.
“As businesses reopen across the state, thousands of food workers are being asked to return to unsafe workplaces,” said the community leader. “And essential workers who never stopped working – the majority black and Latino workers – still lack the mandatory protections they need.”
During the demonstration, activists demanded that the Cuomo administration and state lawmakers create tougher laws to guarantee safer work environments that protect employees and their communities. They asked that all workers receive personal protective equipment (PPE), that businesses guarantee workers can maintain social distancing and that workers who report breaches are protected against reprisals.
Activists in attendance at the protest mentioned that workers in the industries of transport, medical services, construction, retail businesses, restaurants, stores and laundromats are among the most affected.
Clemente Rodríguez, from Puebla, Mexico, a delivery worker for a Brooklyn restaurant, said that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has made his financial situation more challenging, but also pointed at some employers’ inaction to protect their workers from risk.
“We were given masks and protective gear only after we demanded them from the restaurant for a long time. We have worked non-stop, and have not seen Cuomo or de Blasio express any real concern regarding guaranteeing our protection,” said the father of three. “I ask Cuomo to enforce serious measures to protect us, because it looks like the authorities are not taking us into account for assistance programs for being undocumented, let alone care about protecting us.”
Richard Blum, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society’s Employment Law Unit, explained that the petition they’ve sent to the governor asks for more explicit laws specifying guidelines and penalties aimed at keeping in check employers who fail to take their staff’s protection seriously.
“New York needs to step up and step in where the federal government has refused to do so,” said the lawyer. “The State must mandate clear rules for employers and create meaningful enforcement of those rules in order to protect all of New York’s workers, and most especially those from the Black and brown communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.”