When N.J. Reopens Offices And Businesses, They'll Have Set Standards To Keep Workers Safe, Murphy Says

NJ.com — April 3, 2020

By Jonathan D. Salant | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

As New Jersey businesses reopen their doors that had been shut due to the coronavirus pandemic, they will be asked to comply with standards to keep workers and customers save. Gov. Phil Murphy announced Thursday.

The standards will be known as the "One Jersey Pledge," which Murphy called "a pact between businesses and consumers on the hand, and employers and their employees on the other, and vice versa."

"It lays out, clearly, that we all share a responsibility to see our restart and recovery through," he added during his daily coronavirus briefing in Trenton.

Murphy said New Jersey's economy won't come back unless workers and customers feel safe. He called on stores and workplaces to display signs about the pledge to demonstrate that commitment to safety.

"It's the sign that says we're all in this together," the governor said. "It's the sign that says getting past COVID-19 is our top priority. It's the way we know we can build the confidence we need to get our economy back to being where we know it can be — strong and fair, for every community and for every family."

Under the program, businesses pledge to customers that their employees will wear face coverings, encourage social distancing, wash their hands regularly, undergo health screenings, frequently clean high-touch areas and require those with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home.

Businesses promise employees that they will provide appropriate personal protective equipment, provide sanitation measures and proper training, and require them to stay home if they have symptoms of the virus.

And employees promise their bosses that they will wash their hands frequently, wear face coverings, undergo health screenings when they arrive at work, and clean high-touch areas frequently.

The head of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce welcomed the new standards.

"You have to have things that provide for a safe workplace, but aren't so onerous that nobody can meet them," Chamber President Tom Bracken said. "We have them now and now companies know what they have to do to be considered safe."

Murphy had been asked to set standards to protect employees, some of whom have complained about being forced to work without protective equipment and who have been infected with COVID-19.

"You cannot return to normal," said Patricia Campos-Medina of the Worker Institute at Cornell University, a policy adviser to Workers United, Service Employees International Union. "Normal kills workers in New Jersey and this country."

Two officials of the New Jersey COVID-19 Worker Safety and Health Coalition, which represents a number of advocacy groups in the state, said Murphy's pledge didn't go far enough. They said they needed an executive order setting regulations and protecting workers who come forward with violations.

"A pledge is completely unenforceable and meaningless as workers are getting sick and dying," said Yarrow Willman-Cole and Adil Ahmed. "The One Jersey pledge does not change the current scheme of enforcing health and safety measures. The reality is that posters aren't effective. Workers know that and don't have the real ability to speak up unless they have the actual right to enforce laws and health and safety standards."

The matter gained urgency Thursday with the state preparing to allow more businesses to open their doors. Stage 2 of the state's reopening plan begins on Monday, with eateries allowed to offer outdoor dining and nonessential businesses permitted to welcome customers back inside, at 50% capacity.

"It's at the point where we see the state reopening without significant actions to protect workers," said Willman-Cole, workplace justice program director at New Jersey Citizen Action, an advocacy group that set up a Zoom conference call Thursday where employees deemed essential complained about the lack of protective equipment and other safety standards.

Some said they were told not to return to work after complaining. Others said they had symptoms for the coronavirus but were told to return to work anyway or else use their vacation time or limited sick leave.

"They didn't give us the protection that we needed. Then people started to get sick," Carmen Torres of Make the Road New Jersey, a group that works on behalf of immigrants, said through an interpreter. "I spoke out and my bosses told me not to come back. There was no more work for me."

Others said they should be allowed to stay home if they don't feel safe returning to work.

"We should have the right to reject unsafe work without retaliation," Reynalda Cruz of New Labor, an advocacy group pushing for better working conditions, said through an interpreter. "It isn't fair. They're basically trampling on our dignity, We deserve something better."

Most people who voluntarily quit or refuse suitable work are not eligible for unemployment insurance benefits, but exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis when the work "poses a high degree of risk to health and safety," according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Bracken said most businesses owners will grant legitimate requests from employees still hesitant to return to work.

"They're compassionate people who have concerned for their employees," Bracken said. "They want to get as many people employed as soon as possible, but they also want to make sure they don't want to put anybody at risk."

A concern is that some employees will make more money on unemployment, thanks to the extra $600 federal payment that ends July 31, and may not want to return for that reason.

"We know for a fact that some people are making more," Bracken said "You cant ignore that. If you put out an executive order that allows people to not work for health emergencies, it gives them shelter to not go to work for whatever reason."

"If we're going to recover at a reasonable pace, companies have to have employees."

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