As a former public school teacher and union member, labor issues are personal to me. Even though the labor of working people has created New York’s tremendous wealth, that wealth has been captured by a small class of the ultra-rich while the working people who have created that wealth have been left behind.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when essential workers risked their lives and struggled to make ends meet, CEO pay jumped 14.1% while the median wage for workers stagnated.
In 2021, the year after the height of the pandemic, as workers struggled to regain footing in an unstable economy, CEOs received 274 times the pay of the median employee at their companies, a nearly 12% increase from the year prior. And now, as inflation increases the price of goods at the supermarkets and bodegas across New York, working people are falling behind even further.
Despite these grim statistics, New Yorkers have seen important victories in the fight for organized labor and worker protections these past two years. In Staten Island, Amazon workers voted to unionize in their first successful union drive in the country. We witnessed a spate of Starbucks stores unionizing across the five boroughs and across the state, despite harsh retaliation efforts from Starbucks, as well as unionization efforts by legislative staffers in New York City and New York State. Organized labor has shown that we are more powerful together, from the Teamsters in Hunt’s Point in the Bronx to organized nurses in Buffalo. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) also won an inspiring victory: in response to over a decade of economic injustice for taxi workers, NYTWA and its allies staged more than one hundred protests, hunger strikes, and mutual aid efforts, and ultimately won important battles to reduce the illegitimate debt imposed on them.
Organized labor is the main blunting force that protects us workers against the exploitation that is inherent to capitalism. The labor movement won the eight-hour work day, gave us the weekend, and made the New Deal possible, starting right here in New York. I believe that the labor movement can change our world again. With inflation rising and wages shrinking, we need to continue to fight.
In New York State this year, we passed legislation to amend the wage theft law to help exploited workers in the construction industry secure payment and collect unpaid wages (S2766C), protect the health of workers during the COVID-19 health crisis (S1034B), and expand the eligibility for domestic workers to receive temporary disability benefits (S3291A).
But there is still much more to do, as we have a world to win.
As State Senator, I will continue to fight for:
In New York State, roughly one million workers—16.4% of New York State’s workforce—earn the minimum wage. This includes a disproportionate number of women and minority groups that have been repeatedly left behind by our state. Beginning in 2012, the nationwide “Fight for Fifteen” movement publicized the inadequacy of the minimum wage, and in part led state lawmakers to gradually increase the minimum wage in New York. Between calibrations for certain parts of the state requiring only a $13.20 minimum wage and various loopholes, many workers in the state do not even make this minimum wage. We must:
- Tie the minimum wage to inflation. Over the past few decades, rising inflation has decreased the value of the minimum wage, chipping away at workers’ purchasing power and leading to hardship for many. As inflation cuts into wages, workers in the lowest-paying positions struggle to pay bills, feed their families, and access transportation. By passing S3062C and joining 18 other states that have tied minimum wage to inflation, New York State will maintain the purchasing power of minimum wage workers without yearly legislative action.
- “One Fair Wage” for tipped workers. The sub-minimum wage for tipped workers is 66% of the overall minimum wage, and ranges from $8.35-$10.40 per hour in New York. The sub-minimum wage impacts 400,000 tipped workers in New York; these workers deserve an equal minimum wage. While some tipped workers in New York received “One Fair Wage” at the end of 2019 (e.g., nail salon workers and car wash workers, among others), restaurant workers, who constitute the majority of tipped workers, were left out. This majority-female workforce continues to suffer higher rates of sexual harassment and economic hardship as a result. We need to pass S808A in order to provide one fair wage for all workers.
- Close loopholes around tipped worker pay in sport facilities. Currently, despite a statewide minimum wage of $15, food service employers have the ability to pay sub-minimum wages to workers, as long as workers receive on average the difference in tips. This is an imprecise and imperfect system that often results in inequities in food service work and wages. Eight states have already eliminated “tipped credit,” requiring that food service workers be paid full minimum wage. New York State must follow suit. This is why I sponsor S9192, which specifically requires that any sports facilities that receive funding from New York State cannot enter into contract with a food service employer unless they pay at least the state minimum wage to employees, without crediting gratuities.
- Protect nail salon employees. Despite ending sub-minimum wages for nail salon workers in 2020, 76% of workers surveyed were being paid less in April 2021 than the minimum wage throughout the state. This is because employers continue to break labor laws, exploit their workers, and create a “race to the bottom” that further drives down wages across the industry. We can push back by passing S8166 to create minimum standards for the nail salon industry, and measures to help eliminate wage theft and make it harder for employers to break the minimum wage laws.
- Classify gig economy workers as employees. The gig economy is built on a pool of low-wage workers with fewer rights who are more easily exploited. Companies like Amazon, Uber, and Lyft exploit the law by calling their employees “independent contractors” so that they can be made to work without benefits (e.g., healthcare, retirement, etc.) and other protections. These companies exploit their workers and undercut existing worker protections, creating yet another “race to the bottom” on workers’ protections. By passing S1999 we can finally make clear what should already be clear: an employee is an employee, and is entitled to the protections that come with employment.
- Strengthen protections for victims of wage theft. In too many instances, exploitative employers dissipate their assets or dissolve their business to avoid paying wages they owe to their employees. By the time workers have filed a lawsuit and are awarded a judgment, there are few, if any, assets to be found. By passing S2762, we would increase the ability for workers to secure and collect the wages for work already performed. In prior years, we passed S2844B, to allow employees to collect payment that was owed to them. After Gov. Cuomo wrongly vetoed that bill, we need to pass the re-introduced S2762 so that Gov. Hochul can sign these worker protections into law.
Increased Wages for Home Care and Child Care Workers
The fight for labor is also a fight for racial and gender justice. Here in New York, our home care and child care sectors consist overwhelmingly of women—especially Black women and women of color—who are paid wages that leave the majority of these workers in or near poverty. That’s why this year I introduced legislation for Universal Child Care, including provisions that raise wages and implement stronger protections for child-care providers. That’s also why I fought hard for Fair Pay for Home Care, to raise salaries to 150% of the regional minimum wage. Although we won some modest victories on both of these issues, we didn’t get nearly what we demanded and deserve, and we didn’t succeed in ending the grueling 24-hour shifts for home-care workers. We must:
- Guarantee fair pay for home care. Many home care workers are required to work mandatory 24-hour shifts. This is a tremendous injustice resulting from a 2019 Court of Appeals decision upholding a NYS Department of Labor (DOL) regulation that allows home healthcare workers to be paid for only 13 hours of a 24-hour shift, so long as they are afforded an eight-hour sleep break and three hours of meal break time. With this rule in place, home health care aides are compelled to work through those breaks, and the state’s rule has allowed their employers to avoid paying home-care workers for every hour worked. New York must ban mandatory home-care aide overtime and prohibit employers from punishing workers who refuse to work overtime, eliminating involuntary 24-hour workdays in a sector composed mostly of women of color (S359A). Additionally, New York needs to recruit approximately 87,000 home care workers to meet the state’s growing need. In recent years, 25% of all home-care patients reported that they were unable to find care workers. Higher wages and better working conditions will not only improve recruitment and retention for home-care workers, but provide a just wage for those currently in the home-care profession. Home-care workers provide an essential, vital service in our society and, as such, they deserve to be valued and compensated for their labor. By passing S5374A, we can do this and increase the amount of pay for home care workers to 150% of the regional minimum wage.
Ensure Just Unemployment Practices
As we saw during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, as businesses large and small closed their doors and laid off workers and as entire industries ceased operating, New Yorkers relied more than ever on unemployment insurance. Yet many essential workers were left out of receiving unemployment benefits due to immigration status. New York State succeeded in passing a first-of-its-kind excluded workers fund in the state budget, which tragically was not renewed the following year. We must make “Excluded No More” permanent and pass other crucial legislation that would close the unjust gaps in our social safety net.
- Give undocumented workers access to unemployment benefits. Our current unemployment system leaves behind workers who contribute to our economy and society. Many are prohibited from accessing benefits simply due to immigration status. I believe in a permanent solution in the form of S8165A that would allow our undocumented siblings to access the same benefits as the rest of the working class.
- Eliminate taxes on unemployment benefits. Years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many New Yorkers are still struggling to make ends meet and rely on the necessary lifeline of unemployment benefits that often provides them with a fraction of their former income. However, unlike many other states, New York currently taxes those unemployment benefits by treating them the same as ordinary “income.” This practice is regressive and unjustified. The neighboring states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as several others, already fully exempt unemployment benefits from income taxes. New York, which is already the most unequal state in the nation and already severely under-taxes its wealthiest residents, does not. Instead of taxing the richest to pay for public services, New York has decided to tax some of its most vulnerable residents, who are the least able to pay. By passing S6630 and exempting unemployment benefits from taxation, New York will take a step in the right direction towards a more equitable taxation system.
- Cancel repayment of unemployment assistance. As New Yorkers continue to navigate the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19, and the complex administrative processes that come with the social safety net, many beneficiaries of unemployment assistance have been told by the Department of Labor that they were overpaid and will need to repay some of their benefits. These claimants received such payments through no fraud or fault on their part, and were unaware that they were not entitled to receive the benefits that they had. Many of these people are living paycheck to paycheck, and have already spent these unemployment payments to pay rent and utility bills. The federal government passed legislation to provide every state with the authority to waive benefit overpayment amounts. We owe it to these New Yorkers to pass S6244B, which would provide financial relief to thousands of New Yorkers.
Make it Easier for Workers to Organize and Win
In order to fight back against capital in New York, we need a strong labor movement. A fighting labor movement is capable of fundamentally transforming our society from one that privileges a small, elite group of individuals into one based on cooperation and the fulfillment of human need for all. Among other things, I am fighting for the following:
- Amending the constitution to include a right to strike. The right to strike is a right that properly belongs to all workers. However, that right is not currently included in the New York State constitution. Although the rights to organize and choose representatives for the purposes of bargaining are included in the constitution, the right to strike is not. That is why I have proposed a constitutional amendment (S9191) to correct this. Strikes are responsible for many of the benefits employees in all sectors enjoy today, including the 4-hour work-week, weekends, and the eight-hour work-day. The history of strikes and industrial actions in New York and the United States is the history of the advancement of our society’s standard of living. Therefore to deny any worker the right to withhold their labor is to deny employees use of the tool by which our society has become more just and humane.
- Cost of living increases for pensions. In 2000, New York State allowed for a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) to help those with pensions keep up with rising costs and inflation. However, since 2000, the base benefit amount has remained around the same level, meaning that a pension does not allow a retiree to truly keep up with ever-increasing costs of medical care, energy, and the daily cost of living. This problem is only getting worse as inflation rises. By passing S6835C, we can raise the base rate to fit the times and allow public sector retirees to have a secure and dignified retirement.
Ensure the Right to Health and Safety in the Workplace
No amount of wages can compensate for the loss of life, injury, or the long-lasting negative effects on health if workers are not safe on the job. It is incumbent on us to do all we can to protect workers on the job, reduce workplace hazards, and care for and cover workers if and when workplace injuries occur. Workers deserve access to full healthcare benefits as well as workers’ compensation, unemployment, and disability benefits.
- Removing senseless barriers to workers’ compensation benefits. The process of applying for workers’ compensation benefits can be daunting and difficult for workers. In particular, workers who suffer from permanent injury face difficulty in receiving the benefits they deserve. Often workers who are already classified by Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) to have total permanent disability struggle to get the same ruling from the New York workers’ compensation board and are forced to fight in court for years. S1024B would make it less burdensome for workers to receive the full compensation for their injury by assuming that a worker on SSDI has permanent total disability. Those on SSDI are already considered totally disabled at the federal level, and therefore, are unable to perform even sedentary work. It only makes sense to apply the same standard here in New York, rather than creating unnecessary barriers.
- Fund the New York Health and Essential Rights (HERO) Act. Last year, the State legislature passed the New York HERO Act, acknowledging the need to strengthen protection for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, we need to fund it properly to enable it to fully investigate workplace issues and enforce protections for workers.
End the Exploitation of Incarcerated People for Labor
Our nation incarcerates more than 1.2 million people in state and federal prisons, and two out of three of these incarcerated people are also workers. A direct legacy of slavery, the exploitation of incarcerated people through forced, under-paid, and unregulated work is an often overlooked site of sheer exploitation and worker abuse. New York’s minimum wage is $15 per hour, but most prison jobs pay an average hourly rate of only 13 to 52 cents. Deductions for taxes, court costs, and other fees can leave workers with even less. In a survey conducted by Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), included in report by the ACLU called Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers, 70% of incarcerated people working within prisons had received no formal job training, 64% said they felt concerned for their safety while working, 70% reported not being able to afford basic necessities with their prison wages, and 76% of people surveyed reported being forced to work. The 13th amendment abolished slavery—except as punishment for a crime. Now we must end forced labor in all its forms, including in prisons.
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