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Regulators field wave of workplace complaints sparked by coronavirus

ALBANY — Some 20,000 complaints have been fielded by the state Labor Department relating to workplace safety issues tied to the coronavirus pandemic, state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon revealed Monday, Reardon, however, could not immediately say if any of those complaints have led to sanctions against employers who have been ordered by the state to comply with social distancing and other measures designed to counter the spread of the virus.

“The inspectors from our workforce protection area are handling those,” Reardon said. In some cases, she added, the complaints have been turned over to local municipalities.

“I think they have been able to resolve many, many, many issues for people,” said Reardon, who offered no examples of how the matters might have been resolved.

Reardon, speaking during a conference call with reporters, also strongly defended the Labor Department’s attempt to catch up on a deluge of unemployment claims filed since Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down tens of thousands of businesses two months when the pandemic hit New York.

On April 22, weeks after the logjam of jobless pay applications surged, her agency created a “streamlined application” aimed at processing the claims rapidly, she said.

The state has now paid out some $9 billion in unemployment compensation, Reardon said.

“We are processing applications and delivering money faster than any other state in the country,” she said.

In a separate interview, Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said the Labor Department’s performance in dealing with the stream of claims remains far from satisfactory.

Contending the Cuomo administration has dodged responsibility by suggesting delays have been caused by applicants submitting incomplete or questionable information, Ortt asked: “Where is the accountability from the state of New York for what is happening? The reality is there are still thousands of New Yorkers who are wondering how to feed their families, pay their mortgage or put gas in the car.”

Cuomo, at a stop near Buffalo Monday, suggested state workers who have been processing the claims need to be painstaking in preventing fraud in the event that applicant “Suzy Smith is really a computer terminal in some other country.”

As for the state’s role in enforcing workplace safety protocols, Michael Kracker, director of the business advocacy group Unshackle Upstate, said he has not heard of any fines or other sanctions brought by the Labor Department in connection with the COVID-19 measures.

“The businesses I talk to are being as diligent as they can be, and want the best not only for their employees but for their customers,” Kracker told CNHI.

Given the harsh economic conditions businesses face, Kracker suggested the best approach for state regulators to take when dealing with complaints over workplace conditions is to provide opportunities for corrective action before imposing financial penalties.

A Labor Department spokeswoman, Deanna Cohen, said: “Anyone who feels they are working in an unsafe environment should report it to the DOL (Department of Labor) so we can immediately investigate the situation and take action.”

The safety concerns can be reported on the agency’s website via this link: labor.ny.gov/COVIDcomplaint .

Health and safety concerns are also prompting college officials to be cautious in deciding whether classes on campuses will resume in September or remain in online instruction mode. On Monday, officials at upstate Ithaca College said the next semester will begin with online classes but have students return to classrooms Oct. 5 to provide adequate time for safety measures.

Fred Kowal, president of United University Professionals, told CNHI last week he would prefer New York’s public university systems decide soon whether the campuses will reopen for in-person instruction.

On another front, Cuomo clarified his administration’s stance on when people can gather again for church services, stating they will be in the fourth and final stage of reopening. That would put them in the same phase as festivals and rock concerts and keep them from opening for another month.

However, Robert Mujica, director of the state budget, said consideration is being given to allowing smaller church services. New York’s Roman Catholic bishops have been prodding the Cuomo administration to allow Masses to be attended by parishioners, committing to having safety protocols in place during the services.

Also clamoring for guidance from the state have been leaders of organizations that run summer camps for youths. Many camps open in the latter half of June.

The latest state data shows that 106 New Yorkers succumbed to the COVID-19 contagion from Sunday to Monday, bringing the statewide fatality total to 22,729.

Hospitalizations and infections have tapered off, and many counties have beefed up squads of contact tracers to help notify people that they had encounters with those infected.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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