New Jersey Workers Win COVID-19 Protections

TRENTON, NJ–On November 5, Governor Phil Murphy signed Executive Order 192, mandating safety requirements to protect workers from the COVID-19 pandemic in all New Jersey workplaces.

The executive order is the culmination of a months-long organizing effort by activists and frontline workers.

“With today’s action, New Jersey becomes the only state to leverage its public sector-only jurisdiction to protect workers in the private sector from COVID-19. We now have the essential tools and resources we need to ensure businesses are operating safely, and our economy is moving forward,” said Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo.

According to the state website, the safety requirements required of all workplaces now include:

  • Require workers and customers to maintain at least six feet of distance from one another, to the maximum extent possible;
  • Require everyone to wear face masks, except when an employee is at their workstation at least six feet from others, or is alone in a walled space such as an office – Note: employers may be authorized to prevent individuals who refuse to wear a mask from entering the worksite, where such actions are consistent with state and federal law;
  • Provide face masks for their employees;
  • Provide approved sanitization materials for employees and visitors at no cost to those individuals;
  • Ensure that employees practice hand hygiene and provide employees with sufficient break time for that purpose;
  • Routinely clean and disinfect all high-touch areas in accordance with DOH and CDC guidelines;
  • Prior to each shift, conduct daily health checks, such as temperature screenings, visual symptom checking, self-assessment checklists, and/or health questionnaires, consistent with CDC guidance;
  • Do not allow sick employees to enter workplace and follow requirements of applicable leave laws;
  • Promptly notify employees of any known exposure to COVID-19 at the worksite;
  • Clean and disinfect the worksite in accordance with CDC guidelines when an employee at the site has been diagnosed with COVID-19 illness.

There are additional rules that apply to schools, fitness centers, places of worship, personal care salons, and more.

New Jersey is leading the way in protecting its essential frontline workers. In the absence of action by the federal government, New Jersey is one of fourteen states that acted implement emergency worker protections.

Governor Phil Murphy

Although Governor Murphy signed the order, community organizers on the front lines have been fighting for their lives since the beginning of the pandemic.

Louis Kimmel, the Executive Director of New Labor, explained the hard work that went into crafting this legislation and fighting to get it passed.

“This was six months in the making,” Kimmel told New Brunswick Today.

“A couple of different organizations started to come together at the end of March and early April to see about creating some protections for workers as OSHA [the Occupational Health and Safety Administration] wasn’t really doing anything.”

OSHA’s lack of action has directly resulted in dangerous working conditions for thousands of New Jerseyans and their families, particularly in warehouse, restaurant, and temp agency settings.

Elsa Rodriguez, a former warehouse worker at Barnes and Noble, shared her struggle to get basic safety protections at work.

She said the company offered verbal safety recommendations but did not provide masks, gloves, or other safety equipment.

Rodriguez and her team organized and continued to endure unsafe working conditions for weeks.

It was only after management learned about the group meetings that the company provided them with PPE, hired more staff, and closed the problematic job sites and offered paid time off when workers contracted the virus.

However, many workers have not succeeded in convincing management to offer protections. “Workers have fallen through the cracks and nothing has been done,” Kimmel explained.

“At the same time, the second wave was beginning to start up. There was a series of direct actions and collective actions. We applied pressure on the governor by creating petitions and a letter signed off by over 50 health experts making the connection that worker health is a public health issue.”

A coalition of low-wage worker activists drafted the executive order and advocated for it until the Governor approved it.

“We had some help with Rutgers professors to help create a draft executive order that Murphy could sign into law,” Kimmel said. “We had caravans around the state in the summer, we had actions in New Brunswick where workers were being denied sick time they needed because of the pandemic.”

“Workers come home from their jobs and bring what they have into their communities. Employers at the end of the day are responsible for the conditions of work.”

“There now exists a mechanism to make complaints. Now the NJ DOL has an intake form where workers can file a complaint if they feel their health is at risk because of COVID in the workplace. “

“There are anti-retaliation protections to an extent. They’re not supposed to be retaliated for filing a complaint. The DOL will do some follow up and if they’re still out of compliance they will collaborate with the DOH who has the authority to close down the business. There is some incentive for businesses who are doing the wrong thing to do the right thing.”

New Labor has developed a Health and Safety program to empower workers to protect themselves and their colleagues at work: “The key part is being able to engage workers to talk to their coworkers and employers. Educate workers to make sure the executive order can be enforced. We can train workers to do their part to help uphold the executive order,” Kimmel said.

There is still much to be done to protect essential workers especially as another surge in cases looms. 

Fair Workweek NJ and a coalition of organizations provided policy recommendations for protecting essential workers to state legislators all the way back on April 21, 2020.

These critical demands, yet to be implemented, include:

  • Designation as a “frontline worker”
  • Free or subsidized child care
  • Hazard pay and backpay
  • Schedules to be posted with sufficient notice
  • Safety precautions in the event a worker at the site tests positive for COVID-19, including free testing for all employees and mandatory closure and disinfecting of the site
  • Paid sick leave for workers who are sick with COVID-19, quarantining, or taking care of a family member with COVID-19
  • The legal right to decline unsafe work without retaliation

To further address the safety concerns of frontline workers, Assemblywoman Valerie Vanieri Huttle introduced Assembly Bill 4268, known as the Right to Refuse Bill.

“Our frontline workers need the right to refuse unsafe work, A4268 would empower workers to raise their voice without fear of retribution,” she said in a press release.

Many workers have to make the impossible decision of working in unsafe conditions or not being able to feed their families either by staying home or losing their jobs for speaking out.

“Enforceable standards save lives. Thank you Governor Murphy, Commissioner Asaro-Angelo and [Health] Commissioner [Judith] Persichilli for your leadership,” said Tania Gonzlaez, a member of “Make the Road New Jersey” who became sick and lost her job after her employer did not provide her with protective equipment.

“We are grateful to the members of the Protect NJ Workers Coalition and to frontline workers across New Jersey for fighting for respect, dignity and safety for all and we will continue to fight until we win the right to refuse unsafe work for all workers.”