Gov. Phil Murphy approved a bill Monday afternoon granting a wide degree of job protections to “essential workers” who fall ill with COVID-19, by creating a legal presumption they contracted the virus while on the job.
Under Senate Bill 2380, workers – such as first responders and health care, transit, grocery, retail and gas station workers – are eligible for workers’ compensation. And, any absences from work because of the illness are be counted as “on-duty time” and cannot be used against a worker’s paid sick leave balance.
The measure goes into effect immediately and is retroactive to March 9, when Murphy declared a public health emergency in the state.
“The men and women who are on the front lines protecting our health and safety and providing the vital services we all need during this crisis must be assured that they have basic worker protections and that they can get workers’ compensation if they fall ill to the coronavirus,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, said Monday.
“We need to ensure that they can go to work with the knowledge that these benefits will be there if they need them.”
Business groups generally oppose the measure, saying that a worker who could have caught the virus anywhere else can make a hard-to-disprove claim that they caught it on the job.
“Any essential worker out and about at a time when more people are catching COVID-19 in social settings than workplace settings, or those traveling to other states on vacation, can now make a claim they contracted it at work,” Michele Siekerka, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said in a Monday statement.
But Adil Ahmed, director of organizing at the progressive advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey, said those kinds of protections should be extended to non-essential workers, like at many forms of retail, restaurants, casinos and indoor and outdoor amusements.
“In restaurants right now, at least people who are working restaurants, there’s tons of exposure. Not just in the restaurant, but also in the back-end of the restaurant,” he said in an interview. “In some restaurants, everyone has a face shield. In some restaurants, they don’t have anything near” sufficient protection.
Business groups instead support a bill that would grant legal immunity to businesses against claims from workers and customers that they caught the virus while on the premises.
The measure’s sponsors cited language that specifically bars legal protection for “willful misconduct, reckless infliction of harm, or the intentional infliction of harm.” Assemblyman Greg McGuckin, R-10th District, said that could extend to a business owner who allows people to come in without face coverings or does not enforce social distancing.
Lawmakers have gradually inched forward with different protections meant to ensure workers are kept safe from COVID-19. Though an NJBIZ report in August found spotty enforcement, and uncertainty, over who would make sure businesses actually follow those rules.
Federal officials at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, instead of rules, put in place voluntary guidelines, leaving enforcement to the individual state.
New Jersey health and public safety officials said complaints are handled by the individual county and municipal governments. Many of the prosecutor’s offices and county health departments contacted by NJBIZ could not provide details on cases referred to their jurisdiction.
Murphy acknowledged that the state’s enforcement mechanisms leave something to be desired and that there is certainly room for improvement. “I would not be opposed to strengthening, and that may be at the federal level,” the governor said at an Aug. 19 COVID-19 news briefing. “OSHA is something that I’ve spent a lot of time with Congress.”