(The Center Square) – The New Jersey Assembly Appropriations Committee on Monday voted to release a bill that would require employers of essential employees to pay workman’s compensation costs if an employee contracts COVID-19 on the job.
The vote was the first hurdle in the Assembly for the bill, which passed the Senate in May. The bill would be retroactive to March 9, the day Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several organizations spoke against the bill, saying it would put another burden on businesses that already are struggling. The estimated cumulative cost to businesses is at least $400 million and could reach the billions if a second outbreak occurs in the fall.
New Jersey has money available through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to help essential workers who are diagnosed with COVID-19, according to Ray Cantor, vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. He recommended some amendments, including one that defines an essential employee.
“Not every employee who was deemed essential in the governor’s executive orders actually had an elevated risk of contracting the virus,” Cantor said. “Those who had contact with people who had the virus or interacted with the public were at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 than an employee who was in the back office and who had no such contacts.”
Cantor and others said a clause was needed to limit the time frame to when the state’s “stay-at-home” orders were in place.
“It is one thing to presume that an employee contracted the virus at work when their only movements are from home to work and back again,” Cantor said. “But it is illogical to apply the same presumption when that employee is going to the beach, to restaurants, visiting friends, and largely engaging people in a wide manner of ways outside of their employment.”
The bill is “wholly unnecessary” because New Jersey gives workers who have contracted COVID-19 an additional 80 hours of leave, said Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris.
“To add an additional burden on top of that is really unfair to businesses and it just goes above and beyond to make our state even more business unfriendly than we already are,” Bergen said before he voted “no.”
Some Democrats who voted to release the bill said they had some reservations after hearing testimony Monday.
“Maybe we can look at it a little further and make sure we include some of the reasons they were talking about the time frame,” said Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker, D-Essex.