As the state begins rolling back restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 and businesses slowly come back on line, lawmakers and labor advocates are seeking greater protections for the increasing number of people reporting to work.
Approximately 75 percent of the state’s 4.2 million-person workforce has some degree of in-person contact with colleagues, according to data from the Murphy administration. Forty percent have frequent contact with other people and coworkers, such as restaurant workers and bartenders. Thirty-five percent of the workforce has less frequent face-to-face contact, such as construction and warehouse workers.
That spells a problem in the face of a virus that easily spreads between any people within 6 feet of each other and can be transmitted when a person coughs, sneezes or talks. Hence the calls for “social distancing” and the reason Gov. Phil Murphy says the state needs to move cautiously in allowing businesses to reopen.
On the worker-protection side, the Legislature is moving through a series of bills that would expand benefits for “essential workers”—those whose jobs are deemed vital to keep society running, albeit at a reduced level.
During the virtual state of lockdown, “essential” has meant workers have remained on the job at grocery stores, post offices, delivery services, public transit facilities, auto repair shops, pharmacies, gas stations, construction sites, warehouses and health care facilities. The rollback of restrictions is sending more people back work.
“With New Jersey gradually reopening some businesses and planning to reopen beaches following weeks of pandemic lockdown, it becomes imperative that workers have the paid sick leave they need to stay home to care for themselves, their loved ones and prevent the further spread of contagion,” reads a May 20 statement from the progressive advocacy group the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition.
The virus is, after all, still in the state. And public health officials widely expect a second wave at some point this year.
One measure introduced in May – now awaiting action in the Senate Labor Committee – is Senate Bill 2453, which would scale up the state’s earned sick leave benefits and widen worker eligibility. It would also expand the base paid sick time from five to seven days, and adds 15 paid sick days available during a state of emergency.
The bill would remove the 120-day waiting period before a worker is eligible for that sick time. Health care workers – exempt under the state’s current paid sick leave law – would be made eligible. And employers could not require a doctor’s note as proof until worker takes five sick days in a row, as opposed to the current two-day threshold.
“We learned a new definition of ‘essential worker’” during the pandemic, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-37th District, said during the coalition’s remotely held May 20 news conference.
“We’ve learned … that essential workers include all the people that actually keep our society moving forward and out of chaos. Whether we are talking about transit workers, bus drivers, grocery store clerks, restaurant workers, people that are delivering our packages.”
Another measure also introduced in May – Senate Bill 2380 – would make essential employees eligible for workers compensation if they fall ill with COVID-19 during the state of emergency. Any absences from work because of the illness are counted as “on duty time” and cannot be used against a worker’s paid sick leave balance. It would be retroactive to March 9.
“If someone has to miss work because they are infected with COVID-19, they shouldn’t have to use their hard-earned vacation time to make up for their absence or worry about whether they’ll be eligible for workers’ compensation,” a sponsor of the lower-house version, Assemblywoman Joann Downey, D-11th District, said in a May 20 statement.
Business advocates say they are wary of potential side-effects from these measures.
“[M]ost of our essential businesses that are operating are already making accommodations for workers who contract the virus” Ray Cantor, vice president of government affairs at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said in a statement.
He added that the NJBIA wants to ensure that the expanded benefits are “needed and does not unnecessarily harm our essential businesses, many of which are still struggling.”
And the worker’s comp proposal, Cantor stressed, could overwhelm the existing infrastructure which might not be able to handle claims arising from a worldwide pandemic.
“Recently enacted federal law has also expanded family leave provisions. And the CARES Act provides significant health and wage benefits for all workers who become ill,” Cantor added.
Both the state and federal governments have put in place a collection of safety net programs for workers who’ve fallen ill or need to care for a family member. Federal benefit laws were beefed up under the rescue packages enacted in March, but New Jersey still provides better coverage, according to labor advocates.
In addition to the one week of paid sick time under state law, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act grants federal tax credits to businesses equaling up to 80 hours of paid sick time they provide employees so that they can handle those costs.
Workers are also eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid family leave, under federal law, to care for a child homebound because schools have been closed as a result of the pandemic.
We’ve learned … that essential workers include all the people that actually keep our society moving forward and out of chaos. Whether we are talking about transit workers, bus drivers, grocery store clerks, restaurant workers, people that are delivering our packages.
– Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg
But that measure has its limitations. Companies with more than 500 employees, and businesses with fewer than 50 employees can be exempt if they can show the federal Labor Department that they cannot financially survive providing those kinds of benefits.
Unlike the federal family leave act, the state only allows exemptions for companies with less than 30 employees. And New Jersey is one of just eight states to offer temporary disability insurance of 26 weeks.
“The federal packages, I’d say, are fairly generous. I didn’t think they’re going to be enough but they’re pretty generous,” Yana Rodgers, an economist and faculty director at the Rutgers Center for Women and Work, told NJBIZ in April. “It compliments what New Jersey already has.”
The state’s paid sick leave, unlike its federal counterpart, covers employees at businesses staying open despite an order from Murphy to stay closed, health care workers advised to self-quarantine, essential workers who are social distancing, and health care workers advised to self-quarantine.
“For New Jersey to safely reopen fully we need to ensure workers can work in safe workplaces, have access to paid sick days if they should need, and that protective laws and policies are effectively enforced,” said Yarrow Willman-Cole, workplace justice program director at the progressive advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action, said on May 20.