As New Jersey and the nation loosen restrictions, a new program through Rutgers Occupational Training and Education Consortium aims to highlight businesses that have kept the health and safety of their employees front and center during the pandemic.
Nearly two dozen businesses in New Brunswick have earned the Rutgers OTEC High Road Seal of Approval after completing a COVID-19 workplace health and safety program that included a two-hour virtual training, for which employees were compensated, which addressed health and safety protocols that empowered employees to keep their restaurants havens for health safety and therefore also open.
“A lot of workers were unnecessarily exposed to the virus early on,” Carmen Martino, a professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and director of Rutgers OTEC, told NJBIZ.
The 22 bars and restaurants will display the seal on their storefront starting May 24.
Businesses within the Rutgers High Road Employer Program have also encouraged their employees to get vaccinated and regularly tested for COVID-19, and have provided easy access to both. There’s also a mental health component to the training.
Doug Schneider, owner of Tavern on George, was one of the minds behind the idea along with Rutgers OTEC Community & Program Coordinator Anna Barcy. Schneider has donated his own tent weekly for not only his own employees but all food service workers in New Brunswick, to get tested for COVID-19 for months.
Schneider is hosting two vaccine clinics in the near future.
“These businesses are taking the high road by making health and safety a top priority as we enter this new phase of reopening,” said Martino. “When you see that seal on the storefront, it means they’re following best practices and going the extra mile to protect their workers and customers.”
Businesses that have thus far received the seal are:
- Ale ‘n ‘Wich Pub, 246 Hamilton St.
- Catherine Lombardi, 3 Livingston Ave.
- Clydz, 55 Paterson St.
- Delta’s Restaurant, 19 Dennis St.
- Evelyn’s Restaurant, 45 Easton Ave.
- Filippo’s Famous Pizza, 336 George St.
- Freshii, 131 Nielson St.
- George Street Co-op, 89 Morris St.
- Harvest Moon Brewery & Cafe, 392 George St.
- Huey’s Knight Club, 164 Easton Ave.
- Hyatt Regency, 2 Albany St.
- Indochine, 371 George St.
- Mozzarella Cucina Italiana & Pizzeria, 40 Jersey Ave., Unit B
- Olde Queens Tavern, 108 Easton Ave.
- Old Man Rafferty’s, 106 Albany St.
- Poke Nagomi, 342A George St.
- Redd’s Biergarten, 5 Easton Ave.
- Roosterspin, 120 Albany St.
- SOFIA Jewelry & Accessories, 363B George St.
- Stage Left Steak, 5 Livingston Ave.
- Stress Factory Comedy Club, 90 Church St.
- Tavern on George, 361 George St.
“We need to foster the right environment where we know and we’re convinced that internally we’re in good healthy working order. And then if we’re healthy, we’re typically holding ourselves to a standard, and it’s not difficult to hold our patrons to that standard too. We’re mask-wearing and sanitizing, and it goes a really long way with the customer,” Schneider said. “If we worry about the health, safety, well-being, happiness, and repayment of our employees, we’re confident the bottom line will always be healthy. It’s the chicken and the egg thing. You want to make sure you have a bunch of people working that follow the rules, the understand the health effects and how to prevent [COVID-19]; and after that it’s up to us to make money, selling beer and burgers.”
The program is free to business owners and workers are paid for their training time through a state grant. The High Road Seal is continuing in New Brunswick and expanding to other parts of New Jersey. Interested business owners can sign up online.
Not out of the woods yet
Martino noted that many low-wage workers in the U.S. are reluctant to speak up if they are feeling sick or if they believe their working conditions are unsafe. Proactive employers can make a huge difference. By encouraging weekly testing under Schneider’s tent, Martino said, a handful of asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 were caught early on, thus allowing employees to heal up at home and avoiding viral spread.
Now, Martino hopes the training will help address vaccine hesitancy, as employees are encouraged to take the information they learn about health, safety, and the vaccine back to their communities.
John Leary, who runs the George Street Co-op, a High Road employer, said that he wanted to get his business in on the deal for a “very simple” reason: “Since the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lack of reliable information about what was safest. As a health food store we took caution to make sure people wouldn’t become sick by coming in.”
Although the number of COVID cases in New Brunswick is significantly lower than it once was and businesses like the co-op aren’t limiting customers in a way they once were, Leary noted, “We’re certainly not out of the woods yet. We know that a year ago cases went down as we entered the summertime. Things look very good right now, but there seems to be a cap on the number of people willing to be immunized and the virus continues to evolve, so if there’s any tendency for backsliding, we absolutely want to prevent a resurgence of the pandemic.”
The Rutgers High Road Employer Program brings together Rutgers OTEC, the New Jersey Department of Health, New Brunswick City Center, the Protect NJ Workers Coalition, New Labor, and participating businesses. It’s funded by federal CARES Act funding issued through the New Jersey Department of the Treasury and managed by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.