Key worker protection bills stalled in N.Y. Legislature
RDWSU stages a protest in New York City with the big rat unions often use to point the finger at employers who don't do the right thing by their workers. | REI Union SoHo/Twitter

ALBANY, N.Y. —Two key bills to benefit some of the lowest-paid and most-exploited workers appear to be stalled—at least for now—in the New York legislature. That’s led their lead backers, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the Alliance for a Greater New York, to post a public petition campaign to get lawmakers to move.

And that drive, posted on the Action Network a few weeks ago, has already generated more than 21,000 letters and emails to state lawmakers as of June 5. Its goal is 25,000.

The two measures would help warehouse workers in particular. Those workers suffer from unsafe working conditions and extreme heat, which also affects outdoor workers such as Electrical Workers and Teamsters.

The warehouse workers suffer muscle strains, sprains, and tendonitis, as well as repetitive-motion (ergonomic) injuries. The Warehouse Worker Injury Reduction Act would order employers to develop and implement programs to prevent such injuries. That would include safer warehouse design and ventilation, training for workers, and on-site medical care.

“Organizing workers in warehousing and agriculture, we have seen first-hand what happens when employers prioritize the bottom line rather than workers’ lives,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in the prior press conference at the capitol building in Albany.

“Warehouse workers are four times as likely to be injured than workers in other private sector industries” in New York, he said. “Agriculture workers are often forced to work in extreme temperatures without access to water or shade.

“That’s why we support two bills that will ensure workers who go to work healthy, come home healthy: The Warehouse Worker Injury Reduction Act (S5081, A3309) and the Temp (Temperature Extreme Mitigation Program) Act (S1604A, A3321). These bills will address some of the worst abuses in these industries.”

If passed, the warehouse worker act would also fill a major hole nationwide. Thanks to the Republicans’ initial takeover of Congress in 1995, there is a federal ban on Occupational Safety and Health Administration ever drafting an ergonomic injury rule. In New York, there would be a statewide ergonomics prevention program—and annual evaluations.

The other legislation would give the same order to firms that force workers to toil in excessive heat and/or cold—everyone from telephone line workers, outdoor construction workers, and farm workers to warehouse workers whose buildings lack heat.

“New York’s warehousing industry grew 14% in 2022, and workers in that industry—who are disproportionately Black and Latinx—experience serious injury at quadruple the rate of workers in any other industry in New York State,” RWDSU and the Alliance said, citing National Employment Law Project findings.

“Amazon workers are injured at an even higher rate, with one in 12 full-time workers experiencing injury at Amazon’s New York warehouses,” they added.

Indeed, unsafe conditions, which led to a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection, were a key issue in the independent Amazon Labor Union’s organizing drive at a warehouse just south of the state capital of Albany.

And another unsafe working condition—company refusal to protect workers against the coronavirus or even inform them if coworkers fell ill—led to a lunchtime walkout at Amazon’s JFK1 warehouse on Staten Island, the later illegal firing of its organizer, Chris Smalls, the founding of ALU and its resounding win at JFK1.

But the problems are more than just viruses, the union, the alliance, and their allies told a May 18 press conference at the state capital of Albany. The catch is the day before, the legislation they pushed was returned to the State Assembly and State Senate Labor Committees for further amendment, a check of the legislature’s website shows.

Teamsters Local 804 member Chris Cappadonna, who drives for UPS, told the press conference that a heat wave last summer sent him to the emergency room while delivering packages. “I’ve also worked in the warehouse and know how important it is to design those facilities to keep workers safe.

“Two-day delivery isn’t worth risking the lives of the workers that make it possible. We are calling on the legislature to pass this package of bills and protect New York workers,” he concluded.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.