NJ workers demand governor enforce COVID-19 safety standards

Workers from labor unions and immigrant rights groups marched in Elizabeth on Labor Day and called on Gov. Phil Murphy to strengthen and enforce workplace safety rules in private companies. Often, workers say, they must make a heart-wrenching choice between their jobs or their health.

“I was very scared to lose my job, because my family depends on my job, depends on me,” said Evelyn, who works as a housekeeper, through a translator.

Evelyn is a single mom who works as a so-called essential worker. She says she cleaned without proper personal protective equipment and eventually contracted COVID-19.

“I was very scared, also, about passing the COVID to my family,” she said.

“They didn’t provide the necessary tools, and because of that two of our coworkers died due to COVID-19,” said Baldamar Manzano, a former laundry worker.

Laundry employees say after coworkers died of COVID-19, the rest asked for masks and gloves.

“At the beginning, they asked us to first, stay in your home. Then come back to work in a very unsafe condition. And at the end, what they decided was to fire all of us,” Manzano said.

“If workers were able to have the right to say, ‘We’re not going to work today unless there’s soap in the bathroom.’ That’s a very baseline standard,” said Adil Ahmed, director of worker organizing and policy for Make the Road New Jersey. “Not only is there no enforcement, there’s no investigation, there’s no process to investigate to figure out what’s going on in those workplaces, and really developing a timeline to get things improved in a timely fashion.”

Currently New Jersey’s minimum wage stands at $10 an hour. It’ll rise to $15 by 2024. But a new report shows that wages have risen more rapidly for white, high-income earners than for those on the lower end of the income scale.

The study by New Jersey Policy Perspective shows the lowest tier of income earners saw their inflation-adjusted wages rise just 7%, or 68 cents an hour, over the past 40 years. Compare that to a 20% increase, or $3.72 an hour, for median wage earners and a whopping 62%, or almost $23 an hour, for the top tier.

“People shouldn’t have to make a choice between am I going to pay rent, am I going to feed my family, or am I going be in a situation where I’m going to contract COVID?” said Vineeta Kapahi, New Jersey Policy Perspective policy analyst and report author. “People are still struggling to feed their families, even with a full-time job, and people are still unsafe in the workplace.”

Kapahi added, “We also see that Black, and Latinx, and immigrant communities are seeing unemployment and income loss at higher rates than white workers.”

One bright spot: FEMA last week approved New Jersey’s request to receive the new $300 per week lost wage assistance grants on top of regular unemployment benefits. To quality, individuals must be receiving at least $100 a week from the state. FEMA will work with state officials to figure out a disbursement system.

But marchers demand that as New Jersey’s economy recovers and reopens, all workers will need stronger protection.

“We’re demanding an executive order. We’re demanding legislation that expands and enacts and enforces a New Jersey COVID-19 standard — new rules and mandatory obligations employers have to follow,” Ahmed said.