New York Labor Bills Are Stuck in Limbo

The Assembly Labor Committee has emerged as a bottleneck for unions’ top legislative priorities.

Maxwell Parrott   ·   May 31, 2022
Seven bills passed the Senate Labor Committee this month but never came up for a vote in its Assembly counterpart, chaired by Layota Joyner. | New York State Assembly

Update: A day after the publication of this story, Assembly leadership stepped in and rerouted the Freelance Isn't Free Act to the Ways and Means Committee for consideration. The bill subsequently made it to the Assembly floor and passed both chambers.

Starbucks baristas in Buffalo and Amazon workers on Staten Island broke into the public consciousness over the past year with historic union drive upsets, putting New York at the center of a new era in U.S. labor activism. Labor advocates are trying to turn that energy into legislative action—but they’re hitting a wall in Albany.

With three days of the legislative session left, three of organized labor’s highest priority bills are still stuck in committee. Two bills to expand the rights of freelance workers and fashion workers each didn’t make it through the Assembly Labor Committee, which won’t convene again this session.

They could still be referred to another committee and then proceed to a floor vote, but that would usually be done in consultation with Latoya Joyner (D-Bronx), the labor committee chair, who declined to say whether she will help get the bills to another committee.

The third, which would boost protections for warehouse workers, is slated for an Assembly committee that is still regularly meeting. On the Senate side, it was referred to the labor committee, which is also closed—but the chair of that committee, Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), told New York Focus she is committed to getting the bill to another committee and then to a floor vote.

The three bills would enact industry-wide labor regulations for several large sectors of workers.

The Freelance Isn’t Free Act would protect contract and freelance workers by creating a contract system for freelance work, putting time limits on payment and setting up a labor department enforcement mechanism to help workers recoup unpaid wages. The Fashion Workers Act would give models, stylists and other creative artists in a notoriously exploitative industry the right to reliable payment schedules and other protections. And the Warehouse Worker Protection Act would limit the use of algorithms and quotas in warehouses, including the Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island.

The freelancer and fashion worker bills passed through the Senate Labor Committee in early May, with all Democrats voting in favor, but never came up for a vote in its Assembly counterpart.

Joyner, the Assembly labor committee chair, did not answer questions about her position on the bills or whether she would refer them to another committee. Her chief of staff, James Gilkey, initially said Joyner would try to schedule an interview but later said that would not be possible “due to the tight schedule.”

He gave New York Focus a statement on Joyner’s behalf on the freelancer bill: “Freelance content creators should know that they will be treated equitably and fairly by those who purchase their work and I will continue working with [the sponsor] Assemblyman Bronson to ensure that freelancers have their talent respected on the job.” Joyner had included the same statement in a press release for the bill in February.

The freelancer and fashion worker bills are among a group of seven new pieces of legislation that passed through the Senate Labor Committee on May 10 but have languished in its Assembly counterpart. “The only thing that keeps me from being really paranoid is that it’s not just us. There were a number of bills that got through the Senate and not the Assembly,” said Larry Goldbetter, president of the National Writers Union.

“We don’t know why the Assembly isn’t moving [the freelancer bill], and that’s why today, tomorrow… until the end of the session, we’re trying to put a lot of pressure on the speaker and the labor chair to move it,” Goldbetter added.

The Fashion Workers Act, which is scheduled for a floor vote in the Senate this week, has also hit a dead-end in the Assembly labor committee.

“We are encouraged that the Senate labor committee passed this bill swiftly, and we would hope to see the same from the Assembly,” said Sarah Ziff, the executive director of the Model Alliance. “We don't think that this is a particularly controversial piece of legislation.” 

It’s not unusual for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) to move bills in the last days of session to alternate committees like Rules or Ways and Means that continue to meet regularly, but this process often involves the participation of the chairs of the committees where the bills are currently slated. As of Monday morning, Gilkey, Joyner’s chief of staff, declined to say whether Joyner would pursue such a process for the freelance or the fashion workers bill. Heastie’s office did not respond to questions for this article.

“There have been hundreds or thousands of bills that have moved quickly at the end of session that hadn't been part of the formal committee process,” said Michael Kink, executive director of the labor-backed Strong Economy for All Coalition. “That's a regular way of doing business in Albany. So there's still a chance for these measures to move.”

That’s what happened to the warehouse workers bill, which Joyner sponsors: it was referred last Friday from the Labor Committee to the Ways and Means Committee. A spokesperson for that committee said its pace over the last three days of the session “should be fast and furious.” Asked whether the bill changed committees at Joyner’s request, Gilkey said that “private conversations are private conversations.”

On the Senate side, the warehouse workers bill was referred last week to the Senate Labor Committee, chaired by Ramos.

But in contrast to Joyner’s response to the fashion workers and freelancer bills, Ramos’ spokesperson said the Senator has made a commitment to the legislation and would try to push the bill through the Rules Committee to get it over the finish line.

Maxwell Parrott is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
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