Workers’ comp bill: ‘The business community was let down today’

Heads of business organizations, saying it unfairly presumes essential employees who contract COVID-19 got it in the workplace, hope Murphy will step in

By Tom Bergeron
Trenton | Jul 31, 2020 at 4:17 am
Editor’s Desk

We like to go to John Kennedy when we need a straightforward answer on business and politics. The head of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program — and a former business owner — doesn’t hold back.

Kennedy quickly analyzed the workers’ compensation bill that passed the Assembly on Thursday — a bill enabling essential workers who get COVID-19 to presume they contracted it in the workplace and therefore be eligible for workers’ comp.

“It is well-meaning, but extremely flawed,” he said.

The bill, which already passed the state Senate, now is headed to Gov. Phil Murphy. Kennedy thinks it should be vetoed. Here’s why:

“Workers’ comp is a critical support tool for employees when they are hurt at work,” he said. “It protects them when accidents are proven to occur during their time at work by providing wage compensation.

“What many forget is that it also protects employers against lawsuits as well … something known as ‘the compensation bargain.’ But, it needs to be equitable to both sides to be applied properly.”

File photos
John Kennedy of the NJMEP.

In this case, Kennedy argues it is not.

“When an assumption of a liability is created during an event such as this pandemic, that fairness is lost,” he said. “It places the burden 100% on the company, and it allows for presumption and not fact to be the driving factor.

“We do not use this same measure when discussing the flu, colds or other types of viral maladies, because the traceability is impossible to prove out. This is especially true when looking to prove — or disprove — that transfer happened at the workplace. COVID-19 is not an employer-driven liability and should not be treated as such.”

Chrissy Buteas couldn’t agree more.

The chief government affairs officer for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association lobbied hard against the bill.

“The business community was let down today,” she said. “Passage of this bill is the very definition of kicking businesses while they are down.”

Even more, Buteas argues the state is now leaving federal CARES Act money on the table that is specifically allocated to cover the cost of essential workers who do contract COVID-19 on the job.

She’s not the only one who sees business bearing the brunt of this.

The New Jersey Compensation Rating & Inspection Bureau said the bill may cost business between $400 million and $18 billion.

Buteas said the true number can’t be known — because no one knows the true ramification of COVID-19 just yet. Just as no one can really know where the now more than 180,000 people in New Jersey who have contracted COVID-19 got it from.

Buteas said she also lobbied for the bill to limit the time it is in effect.

“There was also the chance to change the bill’s language to limit the term of presumption to a time when stay-at-home orders were in place, when it was more likely for an employee to have limited movements between work and home,” she said. “This is noteworthy, as there are many more scenarios of COVID-19 being contracted in social settings, rather than in workplace settings.”

It’s a reasonable request. And it went nowhere.

Chrissy Buteas of the NJBIA.

Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-Clifton), one of the sponsors of the bill, said it will ensure that essential workers who stepped up in the crisis — everyone from first responders to grocery store workers — are fairly compensated should they contract COVID-19.  And that their families are protected should they succumb to it.

“This legislation is a step forward in terms of trying to remedy the challenge in terms of trying to provide just compensation,” he said on the State House floor before the vote. “The unemployment compensation is pretty much worked out — but the issue of the workman’s comp is a challenging matter and is something that needs to be addressed.

“And I hope, with the enactment of this legislation today, it will go a long way in terms of trying to give some sense of security to victims and also their families, and do what’s right and just as far as giving them compensation to cover the harmful effects of contracting the COVID-19 virus.”

Buteas isn’t against helping those who have contracted COVID-19. Far from it. She just doesn’t think this is the right bill. And she said she’s not giving up the fight. She will push the governor to veto the bill — or at least conditionally veto it, sending it back to the Legislature.

“We are asking for a reasonable amendment on limiting the timeframe,” she said. “We are asking for his leadership.”

She has hope. Murphy did not give a strong opinion on the bill. Some feel this is not an automatic sign.

Buteas said the business community needs him to step up. Kennedy said he wonders what will happen to businesses if he doesn’t.

“If we want to push beleaguered companies closer to the brink of existence — this bill would be the first step,” he said. “Companies should not be punished for starting the pandemic, nor for keeping their businesses alive.

“Essential firms, including the manufacturers who protected us, medicated us and fed us, need protection.”

They didn’t get it with this bill.

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