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Legislature passes infectious disease standard bill

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will soon weigh in on tougher airborne infectious disease regulations for businesses.

The state Assembly passed A.2681B on Tuesday by a 95-55 vote. Both Assemblymen Goodell, R-Jamestown, and Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, voted against the legislation. The state Senate approved a companion bill on March 1 by a 46-16 vote. State Sen. George Borrello voted against the bill.

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Karines Reyes, D-Bronx, the state labor commissioner, in consultation with the state Health Department, would create an infectious disease exposure prevention standard that all private employers would have to meet. The law also allows creation of employer-employee workplace health and safety committees for companies with more than 10 employers.

Reyes wrote that there is no existing state or federal law protecting workers from exposure to airborne infectious diseases in the workplace, though there are several New York executive orders and regulations that set guidelines protecting workers from airborne infectious diseases, they do not cover all industries or all workers. Goodell seized on the executive orders Reyes mentioned while explaining his opposition to the bill.

“This bill says after a year of arbitrary decisions have destroyed thousands and thousands of small businesses, let’s empower the Labor Department to come up with almost unlimited requirements that affect everything including ‘compliance with applicable engineering controls such as copper air flow exhaust ventilation and other special requirements,’ Goodell said. “And if you don’t it’s a minimum $1,000 fine. It’s not the right message at this time. It’s not the right approach at this time.”

Reyes’ legislative memorandum blamed the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for not creating a standard for airborne infectious diseases and for creating guidance that can’t be enforced. On the Assembly floor, Reyes said Republicans were spreading misinformation about her bill.

“There has been some misinformation and I urge my colleagues to read the legislation again,” Reyes said. “I want to thank all the advocates and all the unions and workers who wrote this legislation with me who have been supporting so many people on the front lines. I want to thank them for their advocacy and support of this and I will be voting in support of this, Mr. Speaker.”

According to the text of the legislation, the state labor and health commissioners will create the model airborne infectious disease exposure prevention standard for all work sites, with different standards for different industries. The standard can include guidance for employee health screenings, face coverings, required personal protective equipment that will be paid for by employers; accessible workplace hand hygiene stations and time to use them; regular cleaning of shared equipment, frequently touched surfaces and all surfaces and washable items in common areas; effective social distancing for employees and consumers; compliance with mandatory or precautionary orders of isolation or quarantine that have been issued to employees; and compliance with applicable engineering controls such as proper air flow, exhaust ventilation or other special design requirements.

“The first thing I would point out is this bill is not just limited to COVID,” said Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston Spa. “It’s kind of like another one of another one those bills that we’ve seen this session that’s masquerading as a COVID bill but it really applies to so much more than COVID and it’s not limited by any time. This is going to be the rule going forward of this becomes law. I think, as one of my colleagues alluded to, businesses right now are really at a tipping point and I think passing legislation like this is very ill-timed. All of us want to keep employees and the public-at-large safe, and out of that group employers want to do that. Out of that I think one of the things that bothers me and compelled me to stand up and speak about this is I think there’s a trend in some of the bills that we’ve been seeing which really attributes the absolute worst to the employers, like they don’t care. … I was thinking about Ronald Reagan, because as he said ‘the most terrifying words in the English language are I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ When I look at this bill that’s what I think about. It’s just one more heavy-handed additional regulation on our business community on top of OSHA on top of what businesses are already doing.”

State officials are given the power to investigate employers and have the ability to assess a civil penalty of no less than $50 a day, no less than $1,000 and no more than $10,000 for failing to abide by the airborne infectious disease plan. Employers who are found to have violated the plan over the preceding six years could face a fine of $200 a day if they don’t adopt an airborne infectious disease exposure prevention plan no less than $1,000 and no more than $20,000 if they fail to abide by an airborne infectious disease exposure plan.

“Mr. Speaker it certainly has been a spirited debate,” Reyes said. “I’ve heard a lot of my colleagues talk about that this is not the time for us to be doing something like this that would harm businesses, but I argue that there is no better time to protect the lives of our workers, of our communities and of our industries. They would not survive without employees. I heard someone say this is a rhetoric of fear, and I assure you this is no rhetoric of fear. Fear is the look on my patients’ eyes right before we intubate them. That’s fear. Fear of dying of COVID. That’s fear. And COVID is real. And people are dying, Absolutely, every single day, unless we do something to protect our communities — not just our workers and our industries. And we want to protect those good employers because there are employers out there who are doing right by their workers because they care about their lives. They care about their workers’ lives. They care about the communities that they’re in. Those employers in those communities who are not doing right by their workers are putting everybody’s lives at risk and are putting our economy at risk. And we want to make sure we go after bad actors.”

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