Murphy signs executive order calling for more protection for workers

Order’s requirements are obvious — provide PPE, social distance; its impact on employers remains to be seen

Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order Wednesday that he feels will ensure mandatory health and safety standards to protect all New Jersey’s workers at work during the pandemic.

The order’s requirements are fundamentally sound and what one would suspect many employers already are doing — such as providing personal protective equipment to workers, ensuring social distance requirements and cleaning workspace areas, among other things.

How the enforcement of the order goes — and what potential challenges it will cause to employers — remains to be seen.

Murphy, in his announcement, said it is a matter of doing the right thing. And doing what the federal government has been unable to do.

“Since the start of the pandemic, New Jersey workers across all sectors have risen to the challenges imposed by COVID-19,” he said. “Yet, the federal government has failed to provide all workers the proper standards and protections that they deserve.

“Today’s executive order closes that gap to help ensure the health and safety of our workforce during this unprecedented time. I want to thank the many community partners who have been with us throughout this process, and the employers across the state who have been working with us through the pandemic as we pursue economic health through public health.”

The executive order will take the following actions:

  1. Workplace health and safety standards to cover all New Jersey workers

Starting the morning of Nov. 5, all employers, at minimum, must require individuals at the worksite to maintain at least 6 feet of distance from others to the maximum extent possible and require employees and visitors to wear masks when entering the worksite, subject to certain limited exceptions.

Other protocols include:

  • Provide approved sanitization materials to employees and visitors at no cost to those individuals;
  • Ensure that employees practice hand hygiene and provide sufficient break time for that purpose;
  • Routinely clean and disinfect all high-touch areas in accordance with DOH and CDC guidelines;
  • Conduct daily health checks, such as temperature screenings, visual symptom checking, self-assessment checklists and/or health questionnaires, prior to each shift, consistent with CDC guidance;
  • Exclude sick employees from the workplace and follow requirements of applicable leave laws; and
  • Promptly notify employees of any known exposure to COVID-19 at the worksite. 
  1. Collaborative enforcement mechanism to address complaints

The Department of Labor & Workforce Development will support the Department of Health’s efforts to address worker complaints from their employers. The DOL’s role will include establishing an intake form on its website to receive complaints, and developing an investigation and inspection protocol to review complaints.

  1. Training program to inform workers of their rights and to encourage employer compliance

The executive order also directs the DOL to provide compliance and safety training for employers and employees. The department will provide materials to inform workers of their rights and businesses of their obligations as well as coordinate with workforce training partners to create and provide training.

The order was almost immediately and universally applauded by labor organizations.

Megan Chambers, co-manager of the Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board, Workers United, SEIU, said it is important to put requirements in writing.

“We cannot leave it to employers to decide what CDC recommendations they will or will not implement,” she said in a statement. “This is not a matter of convenience or efficiency. It is a matter of health or sickness, of life or death.

The SEIU represents workers in warehouse distribution centers, industrial laundries and local public-sector jobs — many of whom have been on the front lines during the COVID crisis as they were deemed essential.

But Michele Siekerka, the head of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said the executive order does not take the impact on employers into consideration.

“While we have always shared the governor’s priority to establish workplaces that follow federal safety guidelines, today’s directive again makes New Jersey an outlier in terms of mandates — without any balance whatsoever for the concerns of employers,” she said in a statement.

“Our policymakers must strike a better balance toward trying to help our employers by prioritizing legislation for liability protections supporting those businesses that are doing the right thing already — in addition to bringing them more sorely needed resources.”

Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo applauded the order.

“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,” he said. “We now have the essential tools and resources we need to ensure businesses are operating safely, and our economy is moving forward.

“By protecting New Jerseyans in the workplace, we are lessening the health risks to families and communities. As more people return to work, the high standards we have set today will be critical in maintaining our public health.”

U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1st Dist.) agreed.

“As we continue to battle the coronavirus pandemic, countless New Jerseyans continue heading to work each day,” he said. “These workers are keeping our economy going, and they need the proper protocols and protections to address COVID-19 in the workplace.

“Today’s executive order lays out the enforceable standards we need, ensuring the safety of our workers, employers and customers. I will continue to fight for a federal OSHA emergency temporary standard, but where the (President Donald) Trump administration and (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have dropped the ball, our state has stepped up.”