On May 5, 2021, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the New York Health and Essential Rights Act, commonly known as the HERO Act. The new law (1) requires the New York Department of Labor (“NYDOL”) to develop enforceable industry-specific minimum standards for the private employment sector in order to protect employees from defined airborne infectious diseases, (2) prohibits retaliation against employees who exercise their rights under the Act, and (3) requires some employers to facilitate the creation of workplace safety committees.
Section 1 of the Act becomes effective on June 4, 2021 on which date the DOL is required to issue its safety standards, and the anti-retaliation requirements go into effect. Section 2 with its safety committee requirements and anti-retaliation provisions becomes effective on November 1, 2021.
In his signing statement, Governor Cuomo promised various amendments to the statutory text to correct perceived deficiencies of the Act, including delaying the effective date of Section 1 of the Act by 30 additional days and clarifying the language to provide for an additional 30 days for an employer to adopt model plan after DOL’s model plans are issued. But, for now, with the issuance of new minimum standards less two weeks away, employers should familiarize themselves with the language of the HERO Act and assess how they are going to comply with its provisions. Employers should also review their existing COVID-19 safety plans and any proposed revisions they plan to enact consistent with the industry-specific guidance issued by the DOH.
Model Safety Plans
Section 1 of the HERO Act covers employees in the private sector, including part-time workers, domestic workers, independent contractors, seasonal workers, employees of staffing agencies and others. Employers of all sizes are covered by the Act. State and governmental agency employers and employees are excluded from coverage under the Act.
This section of the Act creates a new section 218-b to the New York Labor Law. It calls on the NYDOL Commissioner to create, in both English and Spanish, model safety standards with minimum requirements for preventing exposure to airborne infectious diseases for all work sites differentiated by industry. Such disease is defined in the Act as “[a]ny infections viral, bacterial or fungal disease that is transmissible through the air in the form of aerosol particles or droplets and is designated a highly contagious communicable disease by the commissioner of health that presents a serious risk of harm to the public health” (emphasis added). Their will be different standards between different levels of airborne infectious disease exposure and circumstances where a state of emergency has or has not been declared.
At minimum, the standards to be established by the Commissioner should include the following topics:
- employee health screenings;
- face coverings;
- industry-specific personal protective equipment (“PPE”);
- workplace hand hygiene stations;
- regular surface cleaning and disinfection;
- social distancing of employees and customers where applicable;
- mandatory or precautionary orders of isolation or quarantine;
- engineering controls, such as air filtration;
- the role of supervisory employees to oversee compliance with safety standards;
- employee notice requirements; and
- verbal review of the safety standards and employer policies.
Employers may either adopt the NYDOL model standards or otherwise create their own standards whose requirements equal to or exceed the the minimum standards established by the NYDOL. If an employer creates its own plan, it must do so with meaningful input from affected employees or in consultation with the collective bargaining unit, where applicable.
Lastly, there are posting and employee handbook provision requirements applicable to all such safety standards. Employers must provide a copy of the safety plan to the employees upon reopening, after a period of closure due to an airborne infectious disease and upon hire.
Anti-Retaliation and Discrimination Provisions
Importantly, Section 1 of the HERO Act prohibits retaliation, discrimination or any taking of an adverse action against employees who:
- exercise their rights under the Act;
- report violations of the Act or any applicable safety standard to relevant federal, state or local authorities;
- report any concerns about or seek assistance in connection with airborne infectious disease exposure to the employer or any relevant federal, state or local authorities; or
- refuse to work where employees reasonably and in good faith believe that they would be exposed to unreasonable risk of exposure to an airborne infectious disease under conditions inconsistent with the safety standards.
Workplace Safety Committees
Section 2 of the HERO Act applies to any private sector employee with at least ten employees. Codified in Section 27-d of the New York Labor Law, it mandates that covered employers must allow employees to establish and administer joint labor-management workplace safety committees. These committees are to be composed of at least two-thirds non-supervisory employees also chosen by non-supervisory employees. In case of a CBA, the collective bargaining representative chooses the members of the committee. Committees representing geographically distinct worksites may also be formed, if necessary. Employers are prohibited from interfering with the selection process of committee members. Committees are authorized to perform the following functions:
- raise health and safety concerns to the employer to which the employer must respond;
- review any workplace safety policy put into place under the Act and provide feedback thereto;
- review the adoption of any policy in the workplace;
- participate in any site visit or inspection by the relevant governmental agencies;
- review any report; and
- schedule regular committee meetings during work hours at least once a quarter.
Section 2 prohibits any retaliation against employees participating in workplace safety committees or any actions taken pursuant to employees’ participation therein.
Enforcement and Penalties
Under Section 1, the Act has a private right of action and allows any employee to sue for injunctive relief along with costs, attorneys fee and liquidated damages up to $20,000. It further empowers the Commissioner to investigate alleged violations and impose penalties of up to $50 per day for failure to adopt a plan and between $1,000 and $10,000 for failure to follow an adopted plan. In his signing statement, Governor Cuomo called for amendments to provide for an immediate requirement to cure violations and to eliminate the private right of action to instances where employers are acting in bad faith and failing to cure deficiencies. The timing of these amendments is presently unclear.
At this point, all of us are awaiting the DOL industry-specific minimum standards to be issued in fewer than two weeks. While the substance of the standards may be similar to what we have encountered throughout the pandemic over the past year and a half, their remain many unanswered questions about the law’s application and impact. At this time, employers should review their existing protocols and also speak with their unions in preparation for the roll-out in early June. Now would also be the time to review your handbooks and prepare to amend the anti-retaliation provisions therein to conform with the language of the Act.
While Section 2 does not go into effect until later this year, employers who have 10 or more employees (and it is unclear whether it is only in-state employees) should start preparing for the establishment of workplace safety committees. To that end, time-keeping issues need to be looked at since such committee meetings cannot be treated as off-the-clock time. Lastly, as mentioned above, some amendments to the Act were promised by Governor Cuomo at the time of the Act’s signing. Those relating to employer liability and penalties as well as implementation timelines are of particular interest.