As New York’s topsy-turvy legislative session is set to end on Thursday, with a multitude of outstanding bills still left to debate, state lawmakers were forced to push the session into overtime, working well into Friday afternoon. Although some pro-worker bills managed to pass both the Senate and the Assembly, a slew of other bills have been left to languish, forcing their supporters to await yet another legislative cycle.
Anti-Wage Theft Law Fails to Leave Committee
Among the bills that failed to pass this session, the potential legislation with the widest reach would have been Senate Bill S2762, otherwise known as the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft Bill (SWEAT) which was supported by a coalition of workers’ centers, elected officials , and labor activists. Despite attempts by the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Jessica Ramos, to get the bill before the legislature for a vote, SWEAT never managed to come out of committee. It was yet another defeat for workers in the state suffering due to wage theft. In 2020, SWEAT did manage to be passed in both the Assembly and the Senate only to be vetoed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Although then Governor Cuomo promised to enact “the necessary protections for workers very soon” in his veto message, wage theft as an issue was left out of the 2021 executive budget.
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“I have been fighting to pass SWEAT and get workers the wages they have had stolen from them since I joined the legislature,” said State Senator Jessica Ramos. “While I am seriously disappointed that the Senate was not able to pass it this year, we will address the rampant wage theft in our state. My neighbors need their money, and that’s the bottom line for me.”
If it ever was passed, the bill would have given workers the power place liens on their employers property to collect back pay if a court found that wage theft had occurred. Currently, workers often find it difficult to collect money that they’re owed as employers go to great lengths to hide assets.
A 2014 study by the US Department of Labor found that in New York, employers stole $1 billion in wages annually. With the pandemic only exacerbating the State’s wage theft epidemic, supporters of SWEAT believed that it was imperative to pass the bill during this legislative session as working New Yorkers could not afford to wait any longer.
“In immigrant communities, wage theft has become an expected part of life, with the $15/hour minimum wage a joke to most. Now, wage theft is increasingly hitting non-immigrant workers and even unionized workers,” said Sarah Ahn, a labor organizer with the Flushing Workers Center and a member of the SWEAT Coalition. “The Senate’s failure to right a wrong that has only gotten worse during the pandemic is shortsighted as it will only create a worse problem for the state to solve.”
Home Care Reform Bill Abandoned
Despite hopes by members of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS) as well as members of Ain’t IA Woman?! The campaign was hoping that the State legislature would finally push to pass Senate Bill S359A which would abolish the 24-hour shift by limiting home care workers’ shifts to 12 hours a day, 50 hours a week. It has been something they have been campaigning for at least three years. Yet this session, the bill failed to even leave the labor committee and be put up for debate. To supporters of the bill, part of the reason the legislation failed to gain traction was the argument by both the union that represents home care workers, SEIU, and the home care agencies is that the state first needs to allocate roughly $1 billion in Medicaid funding before home care agencies can afford to lose 24-hour work shift.
“We think that these shifts should be ended immediately instead of holding hundreds and hundreds of immigrant women of color hostage until these healthcare agencies can come up with more and that that’s ridiculous, said Jihye Song, an organizer with NMASS. “We were disappointed.”
Despite Loss, Nail Salon Workers Remain Resilient
Although nail salon workers and their allies were unable to the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act passed this legislative session, the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition, which includes organizations such as Adhikaar, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, and Mekong NYC, was proud to have been able to get the bill introduced in the first place, as well as bring attention to the plight of nail salon workers.
“Over the last six months, we’ve taken to the streets, sung songs of hope, and traveled to Albany to make our voices heard and ensure every lawmaker knows the nail salon industry is in need of reform,” said Sabita Lama, nail technician, and Adhikaar member leader. “I am proud of all our fellow nail salon workers as we’ve made a lot of progress, and our fight for a voice on the job to improve the industry has only just begun.”
If passed, the bill would give workers the opportunity to sit alongside government and small business owners to establish policies as it pertains to health, safety, and wage standards industry-wide. Additionally, it would establish a set of minimum prices at nail salons throughout the state.
Moving forward the coalition plans to continue to agitate, educate and organize with its sights on the next legislative session.
“New York has a very short legislative session and a very big legislative body, and then you have the budget process, so we knew that there would have to be a lot of work we would have to build this year, said Daisy Chung, Director of the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition. “So we are very excited about the next legislative session but I do want to say that change is as urgent as ever.”
Fashion Workers Won’t Give Up
Of all the labor-related bills to be introduced this legislative session, The Fashion Workers Act was one of the most recent bills, only being introduced this past March. New York is the center of the $2.5 trillion global fashion industry is a $2.5 trillion global industry, and New York is its center in that industry. The state’s fashion industry employs 180,000 New Yorkers, accounting for 6 percent of the City’s workforce and generating $10.9 billion in total wages. Yet, fashion workers such as models, many of whom are immigrant workers, are not afforded basic labor protections. Under New York State General Business Law modeling and creative agencies are considered to be management companies allowing them to escape licensing and regulation. Model agencies can exert an enormous amount of control over models’ image and finances
The bill, if passed, would create basic protections for fashion workers such as forcing the agencies to pay models within 45 days of completing a job as well as provide models with copies of contracts and agreements.
Due to its late introduction, the bill was unable to garner a vote in either house, but the bill did garner attention and was able to pass the States labor committee. Like the nail salon workers, supporters of the bill remain confident that they will win the next session.
“We are encouraged that the Senate Labor Committee passed this bill so swiftly after only being introduced in March. That’s unusual for Albany,” said Sara Ziff, Founder, and Executive Director of Model Alliance NY. “We don’t think that this is a particularly controversial piece of legislation, and we’ll be back to get this bill over the finish line next session.”
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Not All Bad News for Workers
Even if several key pieces of legislation did not pass this session, it was not all bad news for workers. At least three significant pieces of legislation did pass this session, including The Warehouse Worker Protection Act, The Freelance Isn’t Free Act and Carlos’ Law.
The Warehouse Worker Protection Act passed both houses of the New York State Legislature Friday afternoon after extensive debate. The bill gained momentum through the legislature after its introduction in April by Senator Jessica Ramos.
After news broke of injuries at Amazon warehouses and logistics facilities in New York rose by 64% in 2021, due to the reinstating of grueling productivity quotas, Ramos introduced the bill to force companies to be more transparent about how exactly the quotas work and affect workers . The bill requires that major warehouse companies with at least 50 employees in a single warehouse or 500 workers statewide, provide their employees with documentation of their quotas at the time of hire, or when the law takes effect for current employees.
Employees must also be provided with copies of their quota when changes are made and have the right to request their quota at any time, even after their employment ends. Companies will no longer be able to impose quotas that interfere with workers’ lunch, rest, or bathroom breaks. Workers are protected from retaliation when exercising their rights under the act.
“We have a responsibility in the labor committee to ensure that our labor laws keep pace with the changing nature and conditions of work,” said Senator Jessica Ramos. “The algorithms that drive these productivity quotas in warehouses and fulfillment centers come at a serious physical toll on the workers. We simply cannot allow any multinational corporation – like Amazon, FedEx, or Walmart – to drive their profits on the literal backs of working people in our state.”
As for the other two laws that passed: The Freelance Isn’t Free Act will require written contracts and timely payment of compensation. Carlos’ Law is named after Carlos Moncayo, a 22-year-old construction worker who was killed in 2015 as he worked on an unsafe job site. The law, which was first introduced in 2018, would expand the definition of “agency” under New York criminal law to make corporations criminally liable for the acts of common agents, rather than higher-level agents, for crimes involving the death or injury of a worker. The law mandates a minimum $500,000 fine for felonies with a maximum of $1 million and a minimum $300,000 fine for misdemeanors with a maximum of $500,000.
All three bills now await Governor Kathy Hochul to sign into law.