SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

New Jersey Amends Workers Compensation to Protect Essential Workers during COVID-19 Pandemic

Most people know that Workers’ Compensation provides benefits to employees who get injured or sick as a result of their jobs. Workers’ compensation is a State-run insurance program that provides medical and other benefits to individuals who suffer job-related ailments. It also provides death benefits to an employee’s dependents if the employee dies as a result of the job-related illness or injury. Workers’ compensation is a no-fault program, which means that a sick or injured employee will receive the benefits no matter who was at fault, but in exchange, the employee cannot bring a civil action against the employer except under circumstances involving intentional acts.

IMG_0999-300x169So what about all the essential workers who are risking their health showing up to work every day during the Covid-19 pandemic? First responders, healthcare workers, and employees working to provide essential goods and services during the Statewide shut down are among those at the greatest risk of contracting and becoming sick from the virus. How does New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Law protect them? Can Covid-19 be considered a work-related illness during our current public health crisis?

New Jersey lawmakers have recognized this as a serious problem in today’s workforce and have passed legislation to protect essential employees who contract Covid-19 at work. Senate Act No. 2380, approved on May 14, 2020, mandates that if during the public health crisis declared by Executive Order 103 (and extended by any subsequent executive orders) an essential employee contracts Covid-19 while at work outside of his or her home, there will be a rebuttable presumption that the contraction of the virus was work-related and fully compensable under New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Law, disability retirement, and any other benefits provided to individuals who suffer illness or injury related to their employment.  This presumption in favor of the essential employee can be rebutted by a preponderance of the evidence that shows the employee was not exposed to the virus while at work.

The Act was first introduced in the Senate on May 4, 2020 when it was referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. It was later transferred to the Senate Labor Committee and passed with a 27-10 vote, with 3 abstentions. The Act is retroactive to March 9, 2020 and is intended to affirm the rights of essential employees who work outside of their homes to recover benefits in the event they contract Covid-19. It does not reduce or curtail any other rights.

The Act defines an essential employee as an employee “in the public or private sector who, during a state of emergency: (1) is a public safety worker or first responder, including any fire, police or other emergency responders; (2) is involved in providing medical and other healthcare services, emergency transportation, social services, and other care services, including services provided in health care facilities, residential facilities, or homes; (3) performs functions which involve physical proximity to members of the public and are essential to the public’s health, safety, and welfare, including transportation services, hotel and other residential services, financial services, and the production, preparation, storage, sale, and distribution of essential goods such as food, beverages, medicine, fuel, and supplies for conducting essential business and work at home; or (4) is any other employee deemed an essential employee by the public authority declaring the state of emergency.”

The Act is broad in its coverage, applying to workers employed in healthcare industries, including rehabilitative and preventative care, home health agencies, long term care facilities, outpatient facilities, adult day care centers, labs and research facilities, training centers for healthcare personnel, and food service within healthcare facilities. The Act also applies to both paid and volunteer emergency medical services personnel, fire and police departments, as well as those providing goods and services to the public at large.

So what should you do if you contract Covid-19 on the job? Aside from seeking the advice of an experienced medical professional, you should notify your employer right away, and make a request to your employer for workers’ compensation coverage as soon as possible.

What does your employer have to do? Well, under New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Law, once your employer is notified about your illness, it should notify its insurance carrier immediately so that a First Report of Injury can be filed with the State. If your claim is accepted by the insurance carrier, which under the rebuttable presumption language of Act 2380 it should be, the insurance carrier will approve your treatment. If you require longer than 7 days out of work, the insurance carrier will provide you with temporary disability benefits during your illness.

Essential employees and their employers are well advised to keep an eye on any further developments of this Act as well as any extensions or revisions of Executive Order 103. This Act will undoubtedly provide reassurance to the thousands of essential workers who are putting their own health on the line every day to ensure the safety and well-being of their fellow New Jerseyans. Our attorneys will continue to monitor further Covid-19 legislation that impacts the rights of New Jersey workers.

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