By Jennifer Vorih, Esq., Ty Hyderally, Esq.
While many New Jersey employees are at home, either working or having been laid off, others are going in to work every day, providing the services New Jerseyans need — health care services, laundry services for health care facilities, garbage pick-up, police and fire services. The list goes on and on, and each of these workers is entering a workplace which may result in them contracting the novel coronavirus. While we are grateful for their work and the risks they are undergoing to keep New Jersey operating, gratitude is not enough. The New Jersey Legislature is considering a bill which would confirm that such workers are protected if they become sick with COVID-19, or have to take time off work, due to being exposed to the virus which causes it.
On May 4, 2020, S2380 was introduced in the New Jersey Senate, and the identical bill, A3999, was introduced in the New Jersey Assembly. S2380 was referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, and A3999 was referred to the Assembly Labor Committee. The bill is on a fast track, and hearings on it are scheduled for May 12, 2020.
The purpose of the bill is to confirm that essential workers who become sick with COVID-19 or need to quarantine because of exposure to the novel coronavirus are eligible for Workers Compensation, accidental disability retirement, and other benefits for which they would be eligible due to an on-the-job injury.
The bill applies to “essential employees,” which includes, but is not limited to, healthcare workers and public safety employees. It also specifically includes employees who are “considered essential in support of gubernatorial or federally declared statewide emergency response and recovery operations.” Any employee in New Jersey, in the public or private sector, “with duties and responsibilities, the performance of which is essential to the public’s health, safety, and welfare,” is covered by the bill. The bill defines healthcare worker as including anyone who is employed by a healthcare facility, which is defined very broadly.
A crucial aspect of the bill is that there is a rebuttable presumption that an essential worker who is working during the public health emergency and becomes ill with COVID-19, contracted it due to their employment. This is an amazing, and very necessary, part of the bill. It would be nearly impossible for employees, who become ill, to prove that they were exposed to the virus due to their work. Thus, it would be incredibly unfair to make employees have to prove such a fact. Instead, this bill presumes that such exposure or injury was work-related. This is a rebuttable presumption, but the only way to rebut the presumption is to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, “that the worker was not exposed to the disease.” Since it would be impossible to show that someone who contracted the disease was not exposed to it, this means that New Jersey essential workers who suffer from COVID-19 or have to quarantine because of it, are protected by Workers Compensation and other benefits. This is as it should be. As a State, we are benefitting from these workers going to work day after day and policing our streets, protecting us from fire, treating those who are sick due to the pandemic, and keeping the hospitals and nursing homes running. The least we can do, is see that if they are impacted by the risk their work puts on them, they get the benefits they are due.
Another very important aspect of the bill is that all time which an essential worker cannot work due to hospitalization, quarantine, or self-quarantine, shall be considered as on duty time. Further, essential employees cannot be required to use paid leave or another type of time-off to cover their period of incapacity or inability to perform regular duty work.
We will keep an eye on this bill, and hope to update you with good news for New Jersey essential employees soon.
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