Spouses of “essential workers” who contracted and died from COVID-19 will be entitled to expanded benefits under a measure Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law on April 19.
The legislation is the latest effort by lawmakers to expand the rights of workers who stayed on the job during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic last year and the waves of outbreaks that have since transpired.
One of the state’s largest unions, the New Jersey chapter of the AFL-CIO, praised the bill.
Under Senate Bill 2476, families would get increased benefits through the worker’s compensation system. Families of essential workers who died from COVID-19 would be entitled to the cost-of-living adjustments typically afforded to the spouses of public safety workers – firefighters or police officers – who were killed in action.
Legislation Murphy approved in September makes employers responsible for the benefits of essential workers who contract COVID-19, and creates a legal assumption that they contracted the virus while on the job.
“This bill represents a continuation of our commitment to provide adequate compensation to the families of heroes who were willing to risk their own lives for the good of our communities,” Murphy said in a statement accompanying his approval of S2476.
The bill has a broad definition of “essential employee,” including health care workers, home aids, and those whose work entails “physical proximity to members of the public” and whose jobs are “essential to the public health, safety and welfare.”
That includes transportation, financial services, and the “production, preparation, storage, sale and distribution of essential goods” including food, medicine and fuel.
“During the highest peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and even n0w, we heavily depended upon our frontline essential workers to get us through the worst health care crisis this country has ever seen,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th District, said in a June 2020 statement.
“Unfortunately, some of those workers were exposed to the virus and did not recover,” he continued. “This proposal would provide an increased death benefit payment to the families of essential workers, in recognition of their sacrifice and loss.”
The exact scope of how this would affect the state’s finances is unknown.
Murphy cautioned that the source of financing for these benefits, the “Second Injury Fund” – financed by taxes on employers and insurers – has a finite amount of money.
“The unique definition of essential employees in the bill coupled with the fact that the average salaries of essential workers vary greatly may prevent the [state Labor Department] from being able to accurately calculate the cost of the benefits,” Murphy wrote. “Because of these difficulties and the still unknown long-term effects of COVID-19, the bill could strain the fund balance of the SIF, in which case the payment of the benefits provided under this bill may necessitate” outside funding.
He continued that “[i]nsufficient funding of the SIF poses a risk of significant harm to the disabled workers and their families who rely upon these benefits,” and wrote that “the recent trend of utilizing the SIF to pay expenses for which the SIF was never intended is a troubling development.”
The non-partisan Office of Legislative Services meanwhile did not have a price tag on the bill.