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What rights do ‘essential’ workers have during a pandemic?

Thousands of New Jersey workers have been laid off or furloughed over the past few weeks in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But thousands of others in public safety roles as well as those in jobs deemed “essential” continue to go to work every day.

Under Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order, people who work in restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and gas stations are considered essential workers. However, they may not be entitled to the same protections as those in public safety roles.

Workers compensation during a health crisis

Public safety workers include police officers, firefighters, correctional workers, EMTs, nurses, doctors and other medical staff members. In New Jersey, these individuals are likely covered by the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act if they contract the virus in the course of their jobs.

However, right now, no such protections exist for those so-called “essential” workers under the current workers’ comp laws making it difficult to connect their illness to their employment. Legislation has been introduced in the New Jersey Senate to include these workers, but they may have to seek other benefits in the meantime.

Potential benefits in place for essential workers

If approved, Senate Pres. Stephen Sweeney’s bill would be retroactive to March 9. Until the legislation is resolved, essential workers who contract the virus through their job by interacting with the public can seek out other benefits provided by state law.

These provisions include unemployment benefits, earned sick leave, temporary disability and family leave. Additional federal benefits may be available under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act. It’s essential to the goal of “flattening the curve” that these “essential” workers are protected while helping all of us get through this difficult time.

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