New Jersey is creating a private workplace COVID standard

New Jersey’s governor is setting up COVID-19 safety standards for private sector employers in New Jersey, and a means to enforce those rules, following an NJBIZ report on what critics argued was a dangerously inefficient and piecemeal system, according to NJBiz.com.

Under the order Gov. Phil Murphy signed Wednesday, which goes into effect at 6:00 a.m. on Nov. 6, the state will set up a means to enforce compliance with a litany of mandatory COVID-19 reopening protocols, and the means to go after non-compliant employers.

At a minimum, workers have to undergo health screenings at the start of every shift, while everyone present at the workplace has to remain socially distanced. Employees must be made aware if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 at the workplace.

Employees have to wear a mask, provided at the expense of the business owner, who would also supply sanitizing materials to customers and workers at their own expense. High-touch areas must be routinely cleaned and disinfected, while employees must be provided hand-washing breaks throughout the day.

This would benefit the “thousands of warehouse and factory workers, laundry workers, janitors and custodians,” as well as hospitality and the food service industry, the governor said.

The Murphy administration included a litany of similar rules since large-scale business reopenings began in the early summer, like sanitization, face mask usage, 6-foot physical distancing, staggered shifts to avoid overcrowding, protocols for quarantining COVID-positive workers, and how to screen potentially infected employees.

But without a state-level system of private sector enforcement, many workers said they have fallen through the cracks while business owners get away with skirting the rules, at the expense of their own safety.

And federal OSHA, which has upward of thousands of unresolved private workplace complaints, has only put out voluntary guidance for individual states, rather than strict mandates.

“The federal government hasn’t taken this step. OSHA has not yet put forward COVID-19 health and safety standards,” Murphy said at a Wednesday news briefing. “Like so much else, where Washington has failed to lead, New Jersey will step up to fill the void.”

In the place of OSHA and a statewide mechanism, there has been a “triage system with county prosecutors and the departments of health,” said Adil Ahmed, director of organizing at the progressive advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey.

“We’re ensuring that every worker in New Jersey stands under the same umbrella of protections,” Murphy said.

In a statement, the U.S. Department of Labor, which houses OSHA said that “[t]he Department is committed to protecting America’s workers during the pandemic, and OSHA has been working around the clock to that end.

“OSHA has preexisting requirements and standards that not only remain in place and enforceable, but also apply to protecting workers from coronavirus.”

The agency maintains a document title “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” the USDOL said, and workers have the right to “required protective gear.”

“Any worker who feels they are working in unsafe working conditions can make a confidential safety and health complaint.”

Under Executive Order No. 192, the New Jersey Department of Health and the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development would create a system to investigate a lack of compliance and pursue enforcement actions.

That includes a system where employees can submit complaints, as opposed to the existing online portal that was put in place over the spring after a state-run hotline was inundated with calls reporting alleged workplace safety violations.

“If an employer can’t follow the most basic laws to take care of their worker’s health and safety, other parts of our department, those who investigate wage or employee misclassification violations, may need to get involved, to see what other corners that employer is cutting,” New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said on Wednesday.

State health and labor officials would be authorized to perform workplace inspections, issue subpoenas and interview both workers and their employers.

The two departments would jointly set up a system to aid business owners in complying with the rules. Meanwhile, the labor department would create worksite notices and materials for both workers and business owners.

Worker’s rights groups widely hailed the measure, saying it was a “significant first step.”

“The blatant failure of the federal government meant that Gov. Murphy had to take action,” Yarrow Willman-Cole with New Jersey Citizen Action and the NJ Time to Care Coalition, said in a Wednesday statement. “This crisis requires strong action with real teeth to protect the most vulnerable workers and to hold accountable the most unscrupulous employers.

Matters like “right to refuse unsafe work” and “emergency paid sick days,” were also sorely needed, Willman-Cole contended.

Michele Siekerka, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, contended that the order would create a top-heavy mandate where there should instead be collaboration with business owners—especially at a time that the pandemic and ensuing recession has left many of them strapped for cash.

“Most businesses already have protective safeguards in place and are critically concerned about safeguarding their workforce and their workplaces,” she said in a statement. “Mechanisms already exist to call out bad actors and hold them accountable. There is no need to now mandate additional costs on the good actors through unnecessary policy.”

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