Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced an expansion of his multi-agency task force to combat worker exploitation and unsafe work conditions. He now plans to widen its focus to 15 target industries including retail, restaurants, and dry cleaning.
I applaud the governor’s efforts to protect vulnerable workers. However, we should ensure that in seeking to root out exploitation and unsafe working conditions, we don’t simply engage in a blindly punitive application of harsher regulations.
To truly protect workers, we should also empower the small businesses that provide thousands of jobs and billions in revenue to our state.
Dry cleaners, for instance, represent the kind of family-owned small businesses that would be severely affected by such a blindly punitive approach.
Like my parents and many other immigrant families, these store owners are often the only workers in their shop. In the face of declining revenues and a difficult economy, they persevere, working up to 14-hour shifts with no weekends off or vacations just to put food on the table.
The vast majority of them are good operators who do their best to comply with the law, though they may not always be up to date on the latest protocols.
The governor seeks to eliminate the use of perchlorethylene, or perc, a likely carcinogen, from all dry cleaners. For the sake of both public health and safer working conditions, this is a laudable goal.
However, imposing a sudden, blanket ban with heavy penalties for violators would be the wrong way to reach it.
On average, non-perc equipment upgrades cost $70,000 to $120,000. That is already a third of the total annual sales revenue for most dry cleaners.
Many of these neighborhood mom-and-pop stores are located in New York City, which has strict regulations for the flammable solvents that comprise almost all alternatives to perc.
To meet them, all city dry cleaners would need to spend an additional $70,000 to $100,000 on up-to-date sprinkler systems. Forcing these small businesses to abruptly shoulder this staggering financial burden is setting them up to fail.
In states like California and Connecticut, programs have been developed that provide financial support to dry cleaners to switch to non-perc systems, or offer institutional assistance to clean up contaminated sites.
Our own state already has stringent air pollution requirements for perc, thanks to the passage of Part 232 in Title 6 of the New York Codes, Rules, and Regulations. The EPA enacted even tougher federal emissions standards for perc dry-cleaning machines in 2006.
All residential dry cleaners are now prohibited from installing new perc dry cleaners, and must eliminate its use completely by 2020.
Many of our mom-and-pop stores have already made significant investments to comply with Part 232, demonstrating their dedication to environmental protection and public safety.
Simply compelling them to purchase even more expensive equipment several years later would be a rash response to a complicated problem, and a betrayal of the commitment shown by small business owners to being part of the solution.
Some may still argue for enforcing regulations through crackdowns and sweeps. However, there is strong evidence that such tactics by the governor's task force have disproportionately and negatively affected immigrant and minority-owned businesses.
Enacting policies that would force many mom-and-pop shops to shut down would harm both workers and entrepreneurs. We should look to states like California and Connecticut for solutions that help small businesses' owners and employees alike.
After all, without one, the other doesn’t exist.
Ron Kim represents the 40th District in Queens in the state Assembly.