Public health advocates urge Gov. Murphy to enforce workplace health and safety standards


Governor Phil Murphy in one of his daily COVID-19 briefings. | Photo courtesy of WHYY

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Dozens of public health experts called on New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy Sept. 1, urging him to issue an executive order (EO) creating a public health-focused set of COVID-19 pandemic protections for workers.

In a letter sent to Gov. Murphy, 48 public health advocates, including former Deputy Commissioner of Health and professors affiliated with the Rutgers School of Public Health, asked him to implement specific measures to identify and prevent the spread of COVID19. They recommended the following:

• Mandatory and regular training to ensure that workers and employers understand their rights and responsibilities, the science underlying the spread of COVID-19, and how to protect themselves and utilize safety equipment adequately.
• A process for investigating worker complaints about unsafe conditions. It would involve organizations with deep community relationships partnering with the NJ Department of Labor to expand capacity and ensure that complaints are prioritized and speedily investigated and resolved; and
• Penalties for failing to comply with worker protections.

“Right now everyone in our state is being asked to do their part to help prevent the resurgence of COVID-19 –to avoid crowds, stay physically distanced and masked, and to quarantine and test if we’ve been exposed,” said Michele Ochsner, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at the Rutgers School of Labor and Management Relations. “Many of these same steps can help keep workers safe, yet in the absence of federal or state mandates, we know that some employers are not acting to protect their workers from potential exposure to COVID-19. Both first-hand reports and recent data indicate that the risk of workplace exposure to COVID is falling disproportionately on some of our most vulnerable citizens. These essential hourly workers lack job security and basic benefits like sick leave.”

Dr. Raheel Hassan, an NJ-based hospitalist physician, said, “As we witnessed the ravages of this pandemic especially affecting thousands of frontline healthcare workers like me, we strongly believe that a safe working environment is essential in providing quality healthcare to the people. There are mass breakouts across the state, and that affects the capacity of our local hospitals – we have to take measures to prevent workers from getting sick and spreading it into their communities. Too many of us have lost our lives and livelihood, and it is imperative that the protection of all workers and their families should be taken with utmost seriousness at the highest level of decision-making processes.”

As the state continues to reopen and braces for a potential second surge of COVID19 cases, they claim few to no mechanisms for low-wage workers to enforce preventative health and safety measures. Thereby furthering the likelihood that COVID outbreaks will continue this fall and winter.

The letter comes amidst worker-led actions across New Jersey this summer, calling attention to workers’ lack of mechanisms to enforce health and safety standards. An expose detailed the dangerous conditions facing temp agency workers transported in cramped vans. An in-depth review of public data shows that thousands of worker-initiated complaints against New Jersey employers go unsolved.

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