New Jersey must act to help workers left behind by the feds’ COVID-19 stimulus plan

Posted Apr 21, 2020

By Yarrow Willman-Cole

The state should help workers who won't be getting a federal stimulus check. They include immigrants and employees at larger retail box stores, grocery store chains, home care and janitorial services, and more. They include those who have been laid off and essential workers who ensure that those sheltering at home have food and items they need to stay at home, Yarrow Willman-Cole says.

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As the global pandemic unfolds many New Jerseyans have begun receiving their COVID-19 federal stimulus payments. But the most vulnerable among us won’t receive stimulus checks and won’t be eligible for unemployment, paid leave or the job protections needed to get through this crisis. New Jersey’s elected leaders must work quickly to address the plight of those left behind by the federal government’s COVID-19 response, or we risk worsening the health and economic catastrophe overwhelming our state.

Those workers cut out of the federal response are immigrants and employees at larger retail box stores, warehouses, grocery store chains, health, home care and janitorial services, and more. They include those who have been laid off and essential workers who ensure that those sheltering at home have access to food, supplies, home deliveries, healthcare, and other basic necessities. Many of these essential workers risk their lives daily to perform their jobs and keep our economy running.

Gov. Phil Murphy and our Legislature have acted swiftly to put off evictions and large bills for New Jerseyans temporarily. But without adequate support, laid-off workers will struggle with basic necessities like food and face financial disaster when the state of emergency ends and the bills come due.

Essential workers without paid sick leave protections will also face financial hardship if they have to miss work to self-isolate, to care for themselves or loved ones. Or they may be forced to report to work sick, putting themselves, their co-workers, families and communities at risk of infection, sickness and death.

We must act immediately. First, let’s create a disaster relief fund for 500,000 undocumented immigrants who work and pay $604 million in taxes annually. Their dependents include 128,000 children who are American citizens.

We must also grant hazard pay and emergency paid sick days to current workers. The pandemic prompted Congress to take action for the first time on paid leave, passing the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act requiring employers to provide their employees with 10 emergency paid sick days and 10 weeks of emergency family and medical leave. But the law excludes businesses with more than 500 employees or nearly 50% of our national workforce. This means many currently employed in warehouses, big box stores and more don’t have those critical protections.

Let’s provide that protection by strengthening our state’s Earned Sick Leave law to respond to the pandemic. The federal Centers for Disease Control recommends a 14-day self-quarantine for public health outbreaks like COVID-19, and these should be added to our state law as emergency sick days. This change will ensure workers excluded from federal protections have the paid sick leave they need during this pandemic.

The state law provides a floor of five paid sick days. That’s not adequate even for a serious bout of the flu and should be increased to seven days permanently. We also need to remove other barriers, including the 120-day waiting period, employers’ ability to require a doctor’s note after three consecutive days absent, and finally removing the current worker exclusions -- particularly per-diem health care workers.

Finally, we need to provide job protection for those temporarily laid off or furloughed. Our elected leaders provided job protection for those ill with COVID-19, but most laid-off workers aren’t guaranteed their job back when our economy begins to re-open. We need our elected leaders to adopt a policy known as “right of first refusal” that gives workers the right to return to their jobs when their workplaces re-open. Without this, unscrupulous employers would be free to hire workers at lower pay to replace more experienced workers.

Immigrants and today’s essential workers were among our most vulnerable before the crisis. With the onset of COVID-19 they face financial ruin, fear of long-term job loss, and the heightened danger of sickness and death. We’re all in this together and we can’t leave them behind. To get through this crisis with the least number of lives lost, or devastated by economic loss, we must provide all New Jersey’s workers with the protections they need.

 

Yarrow Willman-Cole is the Workplace Justice Program Director for New Jersey Citizen Action and the co-convener of the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition.

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