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Society

New York to Set Workplace Safety Standards for Airborne Diseases

ALBANY, N.Y. — State regulators in New York will soon draft rules that will require employers to protect workers from airborne infectious disease.

A new state law tasks state labor and health officials with coming up with minimum workplace standards around things like the availability of personal protective equipment, social distancing and quarantine requirements. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law last week.

Employers in New York will have to come up with safety plans that comply with the yet-to-be written state standards and provide them to workers. Employers who don't comply could face fines. Workers could also sue for up to $20,000 from employers who don't follow safety standards or retaliate against workers for reporting non-compliance.

The law was intended to help people like Maritza Ovalles, who has worked in the nail salon industry for over two decades but left her job when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and left her exposed in a workplace that she said lacked adequate health and safety protections. 

"When the pandemic began, the level of risk of not having proper protections was life or death," said Ovalles, who advocates for better working conditions as a member of the NY Nail Salon Workers Association. "Knowing this, I could not risk returning to work where conditions did not take into account my life or the life of my family."

Some small businesses are concerned about the cost of complying with the law, according to Greg Biryla, senior state director for the New York chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. He called the law a "magnet for predatory litigation."

"Contrary to what proponents have been highlighting, this bill will have an outsized impact on small businesses who are hanging by threads because of the pandemic and resulting economic conditions," he said in a statement.

Cuomo signed the bill into law, but said lawmakers had agreed to tweak it through additional legislation. He said that, among other things, the amendments will limit lawsuits to scenarios where employers are failing to correct violations.

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