Murphy approves first batch of COVID-19 relief bills for workers, businesses

Daniel J. Munoz//March 23, 2020//

Murphy approves first batch of COVID-19 relief bills for workers, businesses

Daniel J. Munoz//March 23, 2020//

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Gov. Phil Murphy approved a first wave of measures on March 20, aimed at bringing economic relief to workers and businesses hit hard by the effects of COVID-19, as the outbreak brings commerce to a halt and drives up unemployment.

The 12-bill legislative package is, according to Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, the first of more to come that would speed through the state Legislature and onto Murphy’s desk. Their passage comes as the federal Small Business Administration approved New Jersey’s application for “disaster” status, opening the way for thousands of state businesses to apply for loans of up to $2 million to avoid going belly up as patronage plummets.

Senate President Steve Sweeney at Gov. Phil Murphy’s 2021 Budget Address in Trenton on Feb. 25, 2020.

Tens of thousands of non-essential businesses have been closed during the outbreak, from gyms and casinos to most bars and dine-in restaurants, to theaters and public events, and salons, tattoo parlors and barbershops.

“This is the first wave” of bills, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, told reporters last week. “We’re moving quickly.”

Lawmakers sent the governor 24 bills last week; his action Friday marked the signature of only half of them.

One measure that Murphy signed, Assembly Bill 3859, allows him to order the suspension of any evictions and foreclosures during the coronavirus outbreak. Legal proceedings can still go ahead, but the actual removal of the residents is stayed until after the outbreak. The governor soon after issued such a moratorium, effective that same day, saying in a statement that the order would, “bolster public health by ensuring that residents facing eviction or foreclosure can stay in their homes, protecting them against increased risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.”

Another measure signed into law prohibits employers from terminating workers, refusing to hire them, or for taking time off from work because they are, or might be, infected by the virus. That measure, Assembly Bill 3848, went into effect when it was signed on Friday.

“When someone is diagnosed with coronavirus, they will need to be quarantined and off from work for at least 14 days,” Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, D-19th District, the bill’s sponsor, said in a Friday statement. “Unfortunately, some workers will not have enough sick leave or vacation days to cover their full recovery, and may feel at risk of losing their jobs.

“We would never want an employee to go to work when they’re ill – especially with a communicable disease like the novel coronavirus – and risk the health of themselves and others,” she said.

Another law Murphy signed, Assembly Bill 3845, loosens how the New Jersey Economic Development Authority can use incentive dollars to help keep businesses afloat that have been slammed by the outbreak and ensuing recession.

The new law allows the EDA to provide businesses with grants during states of emergency to handle a variety of expenses – including payroll and keeping the lights on – as well as “planning, designing, acquiring, constructing, reconstructing, improving, equipping, and furnishing of a project.”

Tim Sullivan, CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

“The Legislature’s quick action allows the NJEDA to move forward with new resources that will help sustain businesses across the state that are struggling to handle the disruption and uncertainty the COVID-19 outbreak has caused,” EDA Chief Executive Officer Tim Sullivan said Friday in a statement.

“It also provides us latitude to adjust existing program timelines to ensure we are able to continue supporting companies if they face unanticipated cash flow challenges,” he said.

The governor took no action on one proposal – Assembly Bill 3846, which would create a $20 million unemployment insurance program that would compensate workers for wages lost while in quarantine as a result of the outbreak, and for businesses that had to cover pay for any such worker.

Several key measures that Sweeney introduced on March 14, but have yet to move forward, would enact a payroll tax holiday, a two-month holiday on the sales tax, and deferrals on property tax payments.

This Wednesday, the state Assembly will vote on expanding the state’s family leave and temporary disability insurance programs, so that they would cover a worker, or their family, infected with COVID-19, or self-isolating or quarantined because of the outbreak.

That measure also removes the one-week waiting period for COVID19-related claims.