Legislation that will shift the cost of the COVID pandemic onto New Jersey businesses and taxpayers moved quickly in the Assembly this week. A3999 dictates that “essential workers” who contract COVID are presumed to have caught the virus on the job.
The legislation was voted out of the Senate in May but was held in the Assembly. With the stay-at-home order lifted and Governor Murphy emphasizing the prevalence of COVID transmission primarily at house parties and travel to out-of-state hotspots, it seemed we were past the time when an ongoing presumption of workplace transmission would be taken seriously.
It was opposed by NJCJI as well as many of our friends in the business community. Recognizing the legislation was expected to move quickly to a floor vote, we emphasized the need for two significant amendments.
First, we argued the presumption should be limited to COVID cases diagnosed within two weeks of the lifting of the stay-at-home order.
The data has never supported the presumption that essential employees are catching COVID on the job, but there is even less validity to the presumption since Governor Murphy’s stay-at-home order was lifted June 9th. And with a variety of “non-essential” businesses now opening alongside those characterized as “essential,” it’s hard to see why the employees currently working at the drug store should have a different presumption of workplace infection than the hairdressing shop next door.
We also argued that the scope of “essential employee” should be limited to those employees who have actual interaction with the general public.
On this point, we seemed to be aligned with advocates for the bill. Eric Richard of the AFL-CIO accused us of having mischaracterized the legislation, claiming the legislation already limited the scope of “essential employee” to those with contact with the general public.
Several committee members of both parties expressed concern about scope of the legislation and support for the amendments we were requesting.
The legislation was nevertheless posted for a floor vote on Thursday. Assemblymen Jay Webber, Brian Bergen, and Ned Thomson all raised numerous concerns about the legislation, and noted the utter absence of data to support the presumption.
When the final tally was read, the bill had passed by a one vote margin, 41-27-7. However, one legislator who had been recorded as an Abstention changed his vote to Yes after the vote was closed, so the tally has switched to 42-27-6. The bill is now on the Governor’s desk. NJCJI and many of our friends in the business community are urging the Governor to conditionally veto the bill to incorporate the requested amendments discussed above.
One final note: It’s telling that even the advocates have been unwilling to own the full scope of this legislation.
In addition to Eric Richard’s claim that “essential employee” was already limited to workers who had contact with the general public, Assemblyman Giblin has commented that the bill is about ensuring “that essential workers who stepped up in the crisis — everyone from first responders to grocery store workers — are fairly compensated should they contract COVID-19.”
A presumption limited to essential workers who “stepped up” when everyone else was staying home is precisely what we have been asking for. Unfortunately, we’re creating one standard for the drug store clerk, and a different standard for the employee at the hair salon working next door, for reasons the advocates themselves seem unable to explain.
Please contact Alida Kass if you would like to discuss this legislation further.