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Council pushes 'bill of rights,' other protections in coronavirus relief package

Andrew Cohen wants to reduce sidewalk cafe fees for restaurants

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Lawmakers in Washington might be putting together massive relief packages for people and businesses nationwide suffering through the coronavirus pandemic, but New York's city council introduced a comprehensive relief package of its own Wednesday tackling a wide range of issues, from how long renters have to pay their landlords, when essential workers can be fired, and even paid sick leave for so-called "gig" workers.

The bills were all part of the city council's first-ever remote stated hearing, bringing together the government body's 51 members through a massive video conference.

"We are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis for our city, and mourning the loss of so many neighbors, friends and fellow New Yorkers," Speaker Corey Johnson said, in a release. "But even in this dark time, we must be laser-focused on helping New York City emerge from this crisis while prioritizing our public health.

"These bills provide relief where it is needed most right now, including protecting tenants from eviction. It's essential that New Yorkers get the rent cancellation they need, but in the meantime, we need to give renters peace of mind that we won't let them suffer irreparable harms."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo already has enacted a 90-day moratorium on evictions that will likely provide some relief, Johnson said. But when those 90 days are up, tenants likely will be responsible for not only paying their rent from that point forward, but also paying any rent they missed during the statewide shutdown. 

While the council is not going as far as canceling rent itself, it does look to give tenants — both residential and commercial — more time to pay. Through the bill package, evictions and debt collection would remain paused past the state deadline, and all the way into April next year. It would prevent marshals and city sheriffs from taking property and other restitution, or to execute money judgments, in relation to rentals.

Another bill, which Johnson worked with Councilman Ritchie Torres to put together, would also prohibit landlords from harassing or discriminating against tenants who was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, either working as an "essential" employee, or because they were laid off. Violations, if the bill passes into law, could result in fines against the landlord of up to $10,000.

"Harassment and retaliation against COVID-19-impacted tenants pose an urgent risk, and tenants must be protected against unscrupulous landlords during these extremely difficult and uncertain times," Torres said, in a release. "This bill would make harassing a tenant based on their status as a COVID-19-impacted person illegal. We need strong tenant protections in place to ensure everyone who has a home is able to keep it."

The heart of the coronavirus package is known as the city's "Essential Workers' Bill of Rights." This series of bills would require large companies with 100 or more employees to pay essential workers premiums of between $30 and $75 per shift, depending on their length. It also would prohibit companies from firing essential workers without just cause — allowing those employees to speak out when needed without fear of retaliation, according to a release.

A bill in the package introduced by Brooklyn councilman Brad Lander would extend paid sick leave benefit to independent contractors, more commonly known as "gig" workers. State lawmakers failed to provide sick leave protection for independent contractors, even if their work is controlled or directed by the company that hires them, according to a release. Lander expects his bill to close that loophole.

"Every night, New Yorkers are cheering wildly to thank the people who are stocking shelves in our grocery stores, delivering food and supplies, driving people to work and appointments, and caring for sick New Yorkers in our hospitals and nursing homes," Lander said, in a release. "With this legislation, we'll go beyond cheering to make sure they have the pay, sick leave, dignity, and work place protections they so deeply deserve."

Even Councilman Andrew Cohen has offered a piece of legislation to the overall package, intending to protect restaurants already struggling with the lack of dine-in customers by suspending sidewalk cafe fees.

Each year, restaurants looking to have tables on city sidewalks must pay a fee, and Cohen's bill would reduce that cost, especially since at least several weeks of the outdoor dining season will be missed because of the state lockdown.

"The devastation of the coronavirus pandemic is everywhere, and has left virtually no one and no part of the economy untouched," Cohen said, in a release. "These bills will bring desperately needed relief and critical protections for the workers, small businesses and tenants who are bearing the brunt of this crisis."

A spokesman for Bill de Blasio told reporters the mayor "looks forward" to reviewing the bills, but hasn't indicated whether or not he'll support them.

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