Lawmakers are once again considering a measure to ensure greater financial support and job security for New Jersey residents who donate their organs, bone marrow or other tissues to one of the thousands of patients in need of the potentially life-saving gift.
Members of the Assembly Appropriations Committee voted unanimously Monday to support a Democratic-led bill that would expand New Jersey’s temporary disability laws to ensure employees are covered if they are completely unable to work after the donation surgery.
The measure would also eliminate any lag time in the payments and provide specific job protections for these workers, requiring their employers to take them back at the same position or at an equivalent level after their disability ends.
Disability benefits in New Jersey are funded by employers, but largely managed by the state government; benefits are available to workers who earn more than $8,500 in a year and become sick or injured for non job-related reasons.
The law now covers those who are incapacitated as a result of organ donation surgery, but, like other disabled workers, they must wait seven days for their first payment. In addition, the current “Temporary Disability Benefits Law” does not provide an express guarantee of job security for an individual who is unable to work during a period of disability under the law,” the bill states.
Need for donors remains severe
More than 600 organ transplants were conducted in the Garden State in 2016, according to the NJ Sharing Network, the federally designated organization that coordinates donations and transplant surgeries, a 16-percent increase from 2015 figures. But more than 5,000 patients remain in need of a transplant and nearly 100 die each year waiting, the group said.
Transplant advocates have seen a growing awareness of the need, in part due to efforts to engage potential donors in new ways. New Jersey allows drivers to register as donors when they get or renew their motor-vehicle licenses. And in 2016, Apple released a new iPhone with an app that enabled users to sign up to make the gift with a few clicks.
As of last year, some 2.5 million New Jersey residents have registered as willing donors. But the need for organs remains severe, experts said, particularly for kidneys and for tissues — which include heart valves, tendons and ligaments, and skin — items taken from one donor that can benefit dozens of transplant patients.
While the majority of transplants involve organs obtained from deceased donors, roughly four in 10 involve a living donor, according to organdonor.gov, a federal repository of donation and transplant information. Nearly 6,000 such transplants are conducted annually nationwide; most involve friends or family members, but some gifts come from strangers.
The surgeries can be complex
Living donors can give one of their two kidneys, one of two lobes of their liver, and a lung, or part of a lung, organdonor.gov notes. Skin, bone, and blood or bone-marrow cells can also be transplanted from a living individual. Donors must be in good health physically and emotionally, as the surgeries can be long and complex — three to five hours for a live kidney transplant, for example — and the recovery can be challenging.
The New Jersey bill, (A-1449) sponsored by Assemblymen Daniel Benson and Wayne DeAngelo (both D-Mercer), seeks to ease the financial burdens on those who become living donors. It would amend the state’s 1948 disability statute to ensure those who were incapacitated as a result of this surgery could collect benefits for up to 26 weeks — the length of time workers can receive temporary disability for any reason. Officials said it is not clear how much the expansion would cost.
The proposal, which passed the Assembly Labor committee in June, would also eliminate the seven-day waiting period that applies to other workers seeking temporary disability benefits. In addition, it would also guarantee that the donor would be able to get his or her same job back, with the same responsibilities, pay and benefits — or equivalent status — unless that job had been eliminated due to reasons unrelated to their disability.
First introduced in 2015, the bill was previously championed by State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio, a former Democratic Assembly member, and is currently co-sponsored by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex.)
State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), has sponsored Senate versions in the past, but there is not currently any companion bill pending in that chamber.