New Jersey lawmakers took the first steps on Monday toward quickly helping residents get through the COVID-19 pandemic by advancing a host of bills designed to meet needs ranging from virus testing to job retention.
On a somewhat confusing day, the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee approved more than 20 bills, at least some of them with bipartisan sponsorship, in the morning and the full Assembly passed 29 measures — including some the committee had not heard — in the afternoon on an emergency basis. Some of the bills heard by the committee had not been posted on its agenda. Drafted recently and with urgency, only a couple of the bills were available to the public when they were being voted on. They were made available to the press soon after.
Also unusual is that virtually all of the measures passed with unanimous or near unanimous support among the 65 members present, both Democrats and Republicans. And the lower house acted with unfamiliar speed, completing its session in less than 40 minutes.
A few bills deal with concerns related to schools and others to economic concerns. Others are meant to help individuals get the medical treatment they need and be able to stay home and quarantine if necessary, without losing their jobs. All still need to pass the Senate and be signed by Gov. Phil Murphy.
Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson), who chairs the sole committee that met, said in opening its 40-minute meeting that the measures were being pushed due to the “grave importance” of the viral pandemic, which is believed to have infected 178 New Jerseyans so far and left two dead.
A curb on employers
“In New Jersey, we are committed to making sure residents and businesses are prepared and equipped to live and work as we continue through this pandemic,” she said. “With the number of cases of coronavirus increasing, we must make sure New Jersey is prepared to handle whatever is ahead of us.”
Among the bills passed that are designed to help residents get through the public health crisis is A-3848, which McKnight said “would see that no employee is fired due to having to be quarantined.” It prohibits all employers from firing or refusing to reinstate an employee who asks for time off from work based on a doctor’s note that the worker has or likely will get an infectious disease like COVID-19. Violators could be fined $2,500 and be ordered to reinstate the employee.
A bill designed to help those receiving cash public assistance (A-3858), would allow the Department of Human Services to provide supplemental payments when the commissioner determines the standard benefit is not enough to support the recipient’s needs.
Another bill (A-3847) would allow public workers to take a paid leave of absence without having to use any accumulated sick time if the absence is related to COVID-19. This was one of the bills that had some opposition, passing 56-4 with five abstentions. The practice of permitting workers to accumulate large amounts of sick time and receive a lump sum payment on retirement has been criticized by the State Commission of Investigation as recently as last month and by lawmakers themselves at various times.
The Assembly also endorsed several measures meant specifically to help residents’ immediate health needs:
- A-3843 would require health insurers, including Medicaid, to cover testing for COVID-19 at no cost to the individual and to cover telemedicine and telehealth services for the duration of the current emergency;
- A-3860 would allow all health care providers to administer telemedicine and telehealth services regardless of an existing provider-patient relationship and waive all state laws and regulations as necessary to facilitate this;
- A-3856 would provide $10 million to help nursing homes, long-term care facilities, urgent care centers, state psychiatric hospitals, homeless shelters and retirement centers perform increased cleaning and sanitation during the outbreak;
- A-3854 would authorize all licensed health care facilities and laboratories to collect specimens to test for COVID-19 and waive current staffing ratio requirements.
“Increased testing is critical to gauging the spread of COVID-19 in New Jersey,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), a sponsor of the bill. “We need more tests available to help residents and identify patients. We are in unprecedented times. We need to act swiftly to reduce the transfer of the virus and the effects of it on our communities.”