ALBANY — Business advocates and the labor movement are clashing over whether new Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration should implement a new law that would set the stage for COVID-related mandates on employers and protections for workers.

“Reinstating COVID-era restrictions would be the nail in the coffin for many small businesses that have fought desperately to keep their businesses afloat and employees working,” said Ashley Rainslow, assistant state director for the New York office of the National Federation of Independent Business.

The NFIB and two dozen other groups are urging the Hochul administration to proceed cautiously before implementing the New York HERO Act, which was signed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year, with the support of labor unions.

Among groups joining the NFIB in asking Hochul to hold off in issuing a needed emergency declaration for the law to be triggered are the North Country Chamber of Commerce, the Niagara USA Chamber, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce, the Food Industry Alliance of New York State and the New York State Restaurant Association.

SAFETY, HEALTH MEASURES

The HERO (Health and Essential Rights Act) legislation requires significant safety and health measures to be put into place at businesses employing at least 10 people. It also strives to protect employees from exposure to airborne infectious diseases.

In July, the state Department of Labor published the protection standards for various industries, including construction, agriculture, food services, manufacturing and retail.

While employers are required to have a prevention plan in place now, the statute spells out the requirements are activated “when an airborne infectious disease is designated by the New York State Commissioner of Health as a highly contagious communicable disease that presents a serious risk of harm to the public health.”

RETURNING TO WORK

With schools about to reopen after the summer break and with COVID-19 infections trending higher across the state, union representatives and their allies in the Legislature are urging the Hochul administration to let the HERO requirements take effect now.

“More and more New Yorkers are returning to work and they deserve to be able to do their jobs without being exposed to COVID-19,” organizations including the New York State Nurses Association and the New York Immigration Coalition declared in a letter to the new governor.

Allowing the mandates to take effect will help “avoid unnecessary illness and death and another statewide shutdown,” the labor advocates said.

TOO MANY ‘SACRIFICED’

The new law is billed by proponents as setting a major national precedent for protecting frontline workers at their job sites.

“Too many workers already sacrificed their health for our community’s benefit,” said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, D-Queens. “The New York HERO Act recognizes their efforts by giving workers the tools to protect themselves while on the job.”

LISTEN TO BUSINESSES

Taking the side of the business advocates, Sen. Peter Oberacker, R-Otsego County, said state officials should weigh the impacts on employers who were negatively impacted by last year’s pandemic shutdown and restrictions.

Oberacker, noting he is a small businessman himself, pointed out he voted against the HERO Act over what he considered its onerous potential impact on struggling businesses.

“If we’re going to do our due diligence with the legislation, we need to really listen to these small businesses,” Oberacker said in an interview. “They are on the precipice.”

He pointed out many small businesses do not have human resource or personnel managers to handle the bureaucratic mandates imposed by the statute.

Ken Pokalsky, the Business Council’s vice president, told CNHI his group shares the concerns the NFIB and the other business groups have raised. But the question of when the law’s requirements should be triggered is “a public health decision that should be made by public health experts.”

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at [email protected]