The ambitious reopening schedule Gov. Phil Murphy set for May 7 through May 19 generated excitement in the state’s business community. And the pro-labor attitude President Joe Biden has expressed both on the campaign trail and within the Oval Office fueled optimism that employees would be protected as they went back to work.
But the reality has been less compelling. Businesses – especially those along the Shore – have struggled to find workers willing to come back. And the White House has taken months to issue emergency workplace safety requirements surrounding COVID-19, instead relying on voluntary guidelines issued by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The labor shortage is a nationwide problem, but it could be particularly acute in New Jersey as the state gears up for the summer tourism season. Economical health here depends on tens of millions of visitors flocking to the beaches. Serving and lodging those people requires a huge labor force.
Business owners claim the added $300 in federal unemployment weekly benefits has encourages potential employees to stay home rather to return to work. A dismal April jobs report, which showed that the U.S. economy added just 266,000 jobs rather than the 1 million that analysts expected, added fuel to that argument.
“We cannot drive the sustained economic recovery New Jersey desperately needs by waiting out the summer and ‘passing’ to the end of the enhanced unemployment insurance benefits, which will come too late in September,” said Michele Siekerka, who heads the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, in a May 10 statement.
Republican-led North Dakota, Montana and South Carolina are dropping the benefits, but Gov. Phil Murphy says there are no similar plans in New Jersey. “Is there some amount of this related to folks still getting their benefits? That is quite possible. I continue to believe the overwhelming amount of folks who are getting benefits are desperately in need of those benefits,” Murphy said at a May 10 press conference. Murphy’s determination to continue the benefits, drew criticism from business owners.
But Kevin Brown, New Jersey state director for 32BJ SEIU, which represents thousands of state service workers, contended that a lack of worker safety during the pandemic is to blame for keeping people home. “Employers cut corners where they can, and while they may provide some PPE [personal protective equipment], it may not be enough or with adequate frequency,” he said in an email. “There is a labor shortage because some employers are not even paying standard wage, taking away benefits. People can’t work in those conditions.”
Arnold Kamler, chairman and chief executive officer of bicycle manufacturer Kent International, called the notion “hogwash.”
“We spent a lot of money. We have cleaning every single day. We have a very strict mask requirement. I don’t believe that for a second,” he said during a May 11 NJBIA town hall on the state’s hiring problem.
Employers and business groups argue that voluntary compliance is strong – noting that it’s good business to maintain a safe workplace.
Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a November interview that businesses, through voluntary guidance, are able to take into account their own best practices and understanding of the workplace.
“The way we look at it, employers are very much on notice that they are required to protect their employees,” he said.
Michael Womack, head of marketing at the nonprofit New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, said that since factories have been considered essential businesses, they’ve had the opportunity to hash out and fine tune their workplace safety policies.
“They’ve been actively working and reworking their lines, shifting production schedules, creating multiple shifts,” he said. That’s meant working with NJMEP to redesign their production lay-outs and production lines to increase space between workers and stagger shifts.
Bill Corvelli, owner of Hapgood’s Restaurant in Mountain Lakes, said his restaurant has undergone a nonstop process of cleanings and sanitization ever since on-premises dining was allowed to resume last June.
“Customers were calling, asking a lot of questions on how we were handling this,” he said during an OSHA online town hall held with several New Jersey and New York businesses on the state’s reopening.
The federal response has been slow. “Federal OSHA was supposed to have issued basic requirements for employers to follow to protect workers. It would be a path to follow for employers, and also give workers protections they can make sure are being implemented. But the standard is not out yet,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA administrator during the Obama era, who’s now with the National Employment Law Project.
[S]topping the spread and protecting workers from COVID is the only way to get the economy and our lives back to where we want them to be.
– Mike Levy
Non-essential businesses that had to shut down last spring – many retailers, gyms, malls, casinos, restaurants, entertainment, salons and theaters – have reopened at reduced capacity.
“Biden has an executive order and in that order it says it’s morally and economically imperative that we ensure the health and safety of our workers” Mike Levy, assistant regional manager for Region 2 of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said in a phone interview. “[S]topping the spread and protecting workers from COVID is the only way to get the economy and our lives back to where we want them to be.”
Levy said the state’s own operation, enacted under Executive Order 192 last year, encompasses many aspects “not covered by OSHA standards,” such as social distancing, masking, cleaning and employee health checks.
“New Jersey’s enforcing that and again we work with them. We have a very good working relationship,” he said.