Essential workers who have coronavirus get help with benefits

New law shifts burden of proof in workers' compensation claims. Employees don't have to prove they were infected on the job

It’s a major shift in New Jersey’s workers’ compensation law. During the health emergency, essential workers no longer have to prove they contracted the coronavirus on the job to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits. Gov. Phil Murphy signed it into law Monday, retroactive to March 9.

“They’re required to go to work. They go there, they get sick and then, under the old worker’s compensation system, they would have to keep proving, it would be very difficult, they would have to prove that they got the COVID at work,” Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) said.

The new law shifts the burden of proof from the employee to the employer. One nurse from Virtua Memorial Hospital says the law will be a game changer.

“I’m thinking of one member in particular who had a prolonged hospital stay for a documented at-work exposure and she’s still having problems getting her workman’s comp,” said Sheryl Mount, president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees Local 5105. “The news of this passing to her was a godsend.”

“Workers who sacrificed their health to take care of these desperately sick patients should never have to take on their employer,” said Debbie White, the president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees.

The new law also applies to gas station attendants and automotive and convenience store workers.

“It’s unfair, and mostly it’s unreasonable, to pass a law with a presumption, an automatic presumption, that an employee contracted the COVID-19 virus while at work,” said Sal Risalvato, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline, Convenience, Automotive Association.

A maskless mob that greeted social media influencer Nelk Boys in Seaside Heights led to disorderly conduct citations.

“It was irresponsible from top to bottom in every respect,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing.

Employers argue that gathering proves their essential workers could easily get infected outside of work, but claim they got sick on the job. The new law allows employers to refute the presumption.

“Investigations are going to be done, but exactly how accurate will they be and how will we ever truly know?” Risalvato said.

“I don’t think that these people in general are the people who are likely to be at the beach bashes, you know, drinking beer and being with large groups of people. I think these are hard-working people who contracted it at work,” Greenstein said.

Critics estimate the new law will raise insurance rates for businesses and could lead to billions of dollars in losses.

“Our economy is decimated and we continue to put policy out that is making it even more challenging for these businesses to just get one leg up when they’re flat on their back right now,” said Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

The business community urged for a compromise: for the law to cover only the length of the stay-at-home period that as lifted June 9. Instead, the new law will run the length of the COVID-19 health emergency.