This Opinion article appeared July 6, 2020, online and in print in The Bergen Record and at least five other USA TODAY Network publications in New Jersey.
By Charles Wowkanech
Special to the USA TODAY NETWORK
I have nothing against the Blue Angels/Thunderbirds flyover and feel-good corporate television ads, but in the fight against COVID-19, essential workers need more than symbolic gestures.
It seems that everywhere we turn in the media, we hear about the bravery of our “essential employees.” From health care workers to mass transit and transportation workers to supermarket employees and thousands of others, these workers deemed “essential” — mandated by our elected officials to go to work — are suffering because of higher rates of exposure to the virus. This physical suffering often is also accompanied by financial hardship, a direct result of essential workers being denied “safety net” coverage through no fault of their own.
One of the biggest takeaways from this pandemic is that our frontline “essential” workers are falling through the “safety net” of programs designed to help them during a crisis. Our Legislature and state government must recognize that some of our social safety net programs are either broken or woefully inadequate, and work to fix them.
Whether it’s New Jersey’s overwhelmed Department of Labor processing record amounts of unemployment insurance claims, or deficiencies in our paid sick leave law, it’s easy to see that the social safety net either has been starved of adequate resources or is in dire need of reform.
This can be clearly seen in our workers’ compensation system. Antiquated rules are routinely used by some employers to deny essential workers benefits while reducing costs for themselves.
Currently, our workers compensation system requires workers to prove that they were injured at their place of employment. For many physical accidents, this “burden of proof” is not a burden at all; it’s entirely appropriate for injuries or fatalities on the job site and can be easily documented for a workers compensation claim. However, for occupational diseases or infections acquired at the place of work, the “burden of proof” requirement often results in workers being denied workers compensation coverage.
For example, how does a nurse who is working a 12-hour shift at a hospital prove that he or she contracted the virus at the hospital, rather than say walking their dog after work? They can’t. It’s impossible. Yet some employers deny these workers compensation claims due to this inability.
Furthermore, when an essential worker dies of a COVID-19 infection contracted at work, their spouse or other beneficiaries lose a significant amount of family earnings. Their dependency benefit is forever stuck at a percentage of the worker’s salary at the time the worker died. It’s never adjusted for inflation or recalculated for increased future earnings. That’s a significant financial loss for that family — all because that worker died in their role as an “essential” worker, providing health care, goods and services to the rest of society during the pandemic.
This is the human cost of being defined as essential by our elected officials. Not only was this worker made ill or killed due to his or her profession, but now they or their family are enduring a financial hardship as well. Meanwhile, workers deemed “non-essential” are staying at home, not exposing themselves to the virus at the workplace, collecting unemployment insurance and collecting an additional $600 per week.
This is not justice for our front line workers fighting to defeat COVID-19.
It must be corrected via legislative action for the current pandemic and for future “second waves.” We need to learn from the mistakes we are making now to be better prepared in the future.
Our workers compensation system must be reformed to adapt to new workplace threats like the coronavirus. Legislation to fix these two problems have passed the State Senate with bipartisan support. Several other states have already taken action on these issues via Executive Order or by passing reform laws. The New Jersey state AFL-CIO urges the Assembly to do the same right away. The longer we wait, the longer many of our essential workers will suffer financially, deepening their plight and making their recovery from the virus that much more difficult.
Charles Wowkanech is New Jersey State AFL-CIO president.