“Just Cause” Legislation Would Provide Protections for Essential Workers During the Pandemic
New York, NY—Today, New York City Council Members Ben Kallos, Brad Lander, and Speaker Corey Johnson introduced legislation to protect essential workers from termination without “Just Cause.” Essential workers include healthcare workers, first responders, utility workers, and those on the frontline including those at supermarkets, making deliveries, and anyone working at an essential business as defined by Executive Order. Heroic health care and warehouse workers have faced retaliation for speaking out against unsafe conditions where they work. Essential businesses would be required to provide progressive discipline and a “just cause” within a week of termination subject to arbitration, a private right of action, with essential employees able to recover back pay and employers subject to fines of up to $2,500 per violation.
“No one should lose their job simply for asking for protective equipment during a pandemic. Our city’s essential workers are heroes and deserve to be treated that way complete with job protections for putting their lives on the line,” said Council Member Ben Kallos. “Thank you to Speaker Corey Johnson, Council Member Brad Lander, and our brothers and sisters in labor for joining us in our fight to protect essential workers.”
“At a time when the very lives of our hospital and health care workers are on the line, it is unconscionable that they would be fired for ringing the alarm bell about health and safety issues,” said Council Member Brad Lander. “It is imperative that we stand up for these doctors, nurses, and health care workers, listen to and lift up their concerns, and ensure that they cannot be unjustly fired for telling the truth about the conditions they face.”
Over the last month, private hospitals have issued guidance to their workers about what public communications is deemed acceptable. Some of the guidance threatened workers with termination if the communication is not first approved by executive-level staff. New York City’s 11 public hospitals have not issued such warnings and the Council Members urge the private hospital network and all healthcare institutions to follow the lead of New York City’s Health + Hospitals and allow their frontline workers to speak out without fear of an unfair firing.
The legislation provides protections to any “essential employee” that has worked for more than 30 days at any “essential business” defined by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 202.6 on March 18, 2020 or defined by New York State Economic Development. Essential employees are protected from discharge through termination, indefinite suspension, or a reduction of hours of more than 15%. While employers could still terminate employees immediately for a failure or misconduct, in all other circumstances “progressive discipline” would be required within the year prior to termination. Any discharge would need to be accompanied by a written explanation within one week. Complaints could be filed by Essential workers with the Office of Labor Standards within the Department of Consumer Affairs, or in a private right of action, or through arbitration. Essential workers would be made whole through restoration of hours, removal of suspension, or rehiring, corrective actions by employers, and fines of $500 to $2,500 for each violation.
The legislation authored by Kallos, Speaker Johnson, and Lander builds upon Fair Work Week - Local Law 107 of 2017 (Lander) and “Just Cause” for Fast Food Workers - Int. 1415 of 2019 (Landers and Adams).
“It is imperative that we hear from nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers about their experience with COVID-19 so that we can best chart a course to protect the public’s health. With these protections we deliver a blow to the spread of this terrible virus,” said Pat Kane, RN, Executive Director, New York Nurses Association.
“Essential workers have essential perspectives and essential voices, “said Eileen Toback, Executive Director of the New York Professional Nurses Union. “This legislation will grant frontline healthcare providers the ability to tell their own first-hand COVID-19 experiences without jeopardizing their careers. Employers' preferences to control and silence employees isn't in the public's interest. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and we need all the disinfectant we can get right about now.”
“Doctors Council SEIU represents doctors on the frontline fighting against COVID-19 and to save our patients’ lives. As a doctors’ union, we believe speaking out about what we and our patients need is a natural extension of being a patient advocate. We took an oath to do no harm and staying silent will harm our patients and our colleagues. We renew our call to action for the federal government to lead and get us more N95 masks, PPE and ventilators. The best way to beat this insidious disease is through the input of doctors and other healthcare workers. Silencing our voices serves no public good and we applaud the City Council protecting the ability of those of us on the front-lines fighting the Coronavirus to speak out for what our patients and we need without fear of losing our jobs. All essential workers need to have the ability to speak out protected, as the best people who know what is working and what is not, as well as what is needed, are the workers on the frontlines. We are all in this together and truly are stronger together when all our voices are heard,” said Frank Proscia, M.D., President, Doctors Council SEIU.
“In New York and throughout the country, Resident Physicians are being told by administration to take down our social media posts about our working conditions and even threatening our careers if we speak to the media,” said Dr. Linda Alvarez, Secretary Treasurer of the Committee of Interns and Residents, SEIU. “The world has the right to know what is going on and we applaud the efforts made by elected leaders to provide protection to all healthcare workers. Our voices are too important to be silenced in this critical moment.”
“32BJ stands in solidarity with front line essential workers who are speaking up for workplace rights,” said 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg. “We have stood with fast food workers fighting for these same protections and will continue to advocate with Speaker Johnson, Council Member Kallos, Lander and Adams to ensure those worker protections are passed. When workers are not allowed to speak up about unsafe work conditions – we are all at risk. Essential workers are keeping all of us safe during the Covid-19 crisis - and we need to make sure they are protected!”
“New York City’s workers are putting their own health and safety on the line to get us through this crisis, and they need to know that they are protected from retaliation from their employers when they raise concerns that affect us all,” said New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO President Vincent Alvarez. “No one, especially our critical frontline workers, should have to fear losing their job for speaking out about unsafe conditions that threaten not only them, but the families they go home to, and the people they’re caring for.”
“All workers deserve to be protected by ‘Just Cause’ specially under these circumstances. Health and safety is a priority. We count on all essential workers to speak up if the proper protocols are not followed for the safety of the worker and NYC residents As the Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board, Workers United, SEIU. We are in support of all the heroic healthcare workers who go out to work every day to provide their services to all of our communities. Our members who do essential work in healthcare laundries, warehouses and distribution centers, are all heroes working in these trying times”, said Alberto Arroyo, Co-Manager of the Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board, Workers United, SEIU.
“Each day our city’s frontline workers risk their health to keep essential services running. While these workers are putting their health on the line for us, it is only right that we protect them. As the only worker organization to have a due process in the gig economy, we understand the essential role this legislation plays in protecting workers. Requiring essential businesses to provide just cause before dismissing these workers just makes sense,” said Brendan Sexton Executive Director Independent Drivers Guild/IAMAW.
“Over half of New York City frontline workers are immigrants. These New Yorkers are risking their lives to treat those stricken with COVID-19, stock our grocery shelves, take care of our elderly, and keep this city running in a time of crisis, while we work remotely,” said Steve Choi, Executive Director at the New York Immigration Coalition. “They and all workers deserve the right to speak out about unsafe conditions without fear of reprisal or losing their jobs. We commend Council Members Kallos and Lander and Speaker Johnson for introducing this legislation and urge its swift passage.”
“New York’s frontline workers – whether they’re working in our hospitals or at Amazon -- need to be free to communicate to the public about the dire health threats the COVID crisis poses for all of us. New York should act swiftly to adopt just cause employment protections for this vital workforce to ensure health worker whistleblowers do not face reprisal or retaliation when they speak up,” said Debbie Berkowitz, Director of Worker Health and Safety, National Employment Law Project.