Jobs top of mind as New York lawmakers begin virtual public hearings

New York Lawmakers gathered Wednesday for their first virtual joint legislative hearing since the COVID-19 pandemic to explore the impact on small businesses and what measures lawmakers should prioritize to keep employers from closing down permanently.

“I furlough six of 11 staff members and sales plummeted,” said Natasha Amott, owner of Whisk NYC, a kitchenware company, as she described moving her business online while also trying to navigate what she described as a confusing and stressful process applying for state and federal relief and complying with the requirements that relief carries.

“It’s like plugging a dam every day,” said Jeff Knauss, Co-Founder of Digital Hyve, a marketing company.

Carlos Suarez, a founder of Casa Nela, a hospitality company, also testified virtually before lawmakers describing the federal aid application process as, “chaotic, flawed and inadequate.”

All of the business owners who testified expressed to lawmakers the need for an extension to the current time limits to pay back state and federal loans authorized during the pandemic.

“The two-year loan repayment is fiscal suicide,” Suarez said.

While lawmakers try to address the needs of business owners, they are also proposing new protections for employees.
Several employees in various industries considered essential during this pandemic have reached out to 7 On Your Side Investigates expressing concerns about unsafe work environments and being made to work despite having doctors’ notes and medical conditions that leave them at risk for COVID-19.

Employment attorney Peter Romero said he has received dozens of similar calls.

“There are a lot of employees who are falling through the cracks in terms of job protection,” Romero said. “So what do you do for that employee who depends on that job for their livelihood? In my view, this is a violation of the New York State Human Rights Law.”

Current employment law does not allow individuals who quit their jobs or are fired to receive unemployment benefits.

So an individual who quit a job over an unsafe work environment may not immediately have protection.

Now, Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, is proposing new legislation to better protect employees as the pandemic begins to subside and more businesses start to reopen.

Hoylman’s legislation would allow employees who leave a job because of unsafe working conditions or get fired for complaining about unsafe conditions to obtain unemployment insurance.

“This forces workers in the current climate to choose between their health and their paycheck,” Hoylman said. “They shouldn’t have to make that choice between work and health protections. We have to make sure unemployment insurance is available to these workers.”

Hoylman’s bill is among several pieces of legislation lawmakers will consider in the coming weeks to help both employees and employers make it through this pandemic.

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