The New York City Council’s “Essential Workers’ Bill of Rights” could face legal challenges and enforcement issues if it were to pass, according to testimony from the de Blasio administration at a virtual hearing on the bill package aimed at boosting pay and protection for workers.

Last month, City Council members introduced a package of legislation that mandates employers with more than 100 employees to provide an extra $30 to $75 a shift in so-called premium pay—or hazard pay—for hourly essential workers. Other bills included in the package would prevent employers from firing workers without just cause and expand the paid sick leave laws to include gig workers.

“We owe them a pay that is compensation for the work that they are doing,” Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, who is co-sponsoring the premium pay bill with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, said during the hearing convened by the Council's Committee on Civil Service and Labor held via Zoom on Tuesday. “Hazard pay is essential, but we have to figure out how to effectively do it.”

The premium pay bill could extend extra cash to 800,000 essential workers in the five boroughs, according to Department of Consumer and Worker Protection Commissioner Lorelei Salas.

But while the administration supports the “intent” of such a bill, the federal government should provide hazard pay for these workers, she said.

“We do believe that the Trump administration has a responsibility to New York during this time of crisis, a responsibility to our workers and our entrepreneurs to provide this premium pay for those who are on the frontlines of this pandemic,” Salas said. “We want to work with you to ensure that our essential businesses do not shoulder these costs on their own and their workers get premium pay for the risks they are taking. The federal government must step up and provide tangible economic support for premium pay given the economic crisis that all essential workers and essential businesses are living through.”

A screenshot from the city council committee Zoom hearing on essential workers' bills.

A screenshot from the city council committee Zoom hearing on essential workers' bills on May 5th.

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A screenshot from the city council committee Zoom hearing on essential workers' bills on May 5th.
City Council

Salas said the operational strain on the agency would pose challenges for enforcing the legislation as well, such as ensuring employers and workers know their rights under the just cause bill, which could require an arbitration program with arbitrators and translators.

The just cause bill could extend such rights to 2 million workers, Salas said. If expanded sick leave were passed, an estimated 140,000 independent workers would be eligible.

Salas testified that no additional resources have been added to the department, which is facing an onslaught of price gouging complaints and reports from workers about employers not paying for sick leave.

“Certainly, we agree very much on the intent,” Salas said. “We are very much committed to continue to pressure the federal government on this.”

Councilmember Kalman Yeger questioned whether the City Council had the legal authority at all to raise wages under the premium pay bill, pointing to how New York State lawmakers had to raise the city's minimum wage previously.

Essential workers testified in support of the package of bills.

Tsedeye Gebreselassie, an attorney at the National Employment Law Project, testified on behalf of a home healthcare aide who feared retaliation if she went public.

“During the COVID crisis, it’s like a war zone,” Gebreselassie said on behalf of the healthcare worker. Thirty residents of the building she works at have died, as well as a co-worker. She has worn garbage bags as gowns, and has been forced to purchase her own personal protective equipment. She herself became sick with coronavirus and infected her son.

"Paying an additional premium pay would make such a tremendous difference for me," Gebreselassie said, reading a statement from the worker.

Rina Cummings, an Amazon employee at the same Staten Island facility where her coworker, Chris Smalls, was fired hours after organizing a walkout in March, testified in support of the additional protections. She revealed there have been at least 50 cases of coronavirus there.

“We are not robots. We are people,” Cummings said. “Amazon has made billions of dollars during this crisis but yet they still fail to protect the so-called essential workers: us.”

Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business leadership organization, said the legislation needs to be “rethought.”

“We’re not going to have the resources to simply solve all problems with public subsidies,” said Wylde, questioning analogies of the pandemic to the crisis after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when New York received more support from Washington, D.C. than now. “We’ve got huge displacement in our economy and we can’t do business-as-usual in terms of coming up with the solutions to deal with it.”

She added solutions will have to be as “innovative” as they were in the 1970s and 1980s to make it through the crisis.

The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce's executive vice president Samara Karasyk said in a statement, "the small business community simply can't afford any additional expenses—they put even more businesses and jobs at risk."

There are also concerns over how large nonprofits would shoulder the burden without either a carveout or more funding as NYC faces looming cuts due to the fiscal crisis the coronavirus pandemic has spurred.

City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal suggested either amending the package of legislation to exempt nonprofits—which provide critical services for domestic violence survivors, undocumented immigrants, and homeless New Yorkers—or providing more funding.

“Our revenues are down around $10 billion, however the city cannot be intimidated into passing an austerity budget," Rosenthal said.