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photo of elbow bump greeting instead of handshakeWhat are an employer’s options when construction workers, who are considered essential employees under the governor’s recent executive order, refuse to report to work because they are worried about contracting the coronavirus?

This was one of many questions that NJBIA and other business organizations fielded during a special webinar aimed at helping businesses navigate COVID-19 related HR issues, as well as new state and federal relief programs designed to help companies survive the coronavirus pandemic.

John Sarno, president of the Employers Association of New Jersey, said his organization has received many calls about employees who are reluctant to come to work at businesses that are still permitted to be open because they are deemed essential under the governor’s executive orders.

“Under ordinary circumstances, when you’re providing a safe place to work and there’s work to be had the employee has to report,” Sarno said. “Having said that, the New Jersey Department of Labor has allowed the use of earned sick leave where the employee has an apprehension about leaving their house because of the inability to social distance.”

But what happens when the employee exhausts that earned sick time? Can those same employees who are not reporting for work next file for unemployment benefits?

“The answer is probably not, although we don’t really know just yet because we don’t how those claims are being paid,” Sarno said. “But generally speaking if you have a safe place to report, and you’re not reporting for personal reasons, then that could be job abandonment.”

NJBIA President & CEO Michele Siekerka noted that some construction companies and other essential businesses still open during the coronavirus crisis are offering higher pay to workers to encourage them to report for work. Now these companies are asking whether those higher wages could be essentially reimbursed under the federal Paycheck Protection Program offering forgivable loans to cover payroll.

“Part of this question is if I paid $10 (an hour) before, but have to pay $15 now, can I get reimbursed … because the only way I can get them to show up is by paying $15,” Siekerka said.

“New Jersey’s wage payment law can sometimes be difficult to interpret,” Sarno said, “but the good news is that hazardous pay is calculated into the regular rate and so that would be payroll.”

The Paycheck Protection Program, one of the largest sections of the $2 trillion federal CARES Act, sets aside $350 billion in government-backed loans from private banks to help small businesses survive the coronavirus outbreak. In some cases, these low-interest loans can be converted to grants, which means that businesses that meet certain requirements won’t need to pay the loan back.

New Jersey Economic Development officials John Costello and Elizabeth Limbrick, who also participated in the webinar, emphasized there are also numerous NJ EDA programs collectively providing $75 million in state and private funds that can help businesses survive the coronavirus’s impact as well.

The online application process for the $5 million Small Business Emergency Assistance Grant Program opens at 9 a.m. on Friday, April 3 and provides operating expense grants of up to $5,000 to small businesses (one to 10 full time employees) in industries highly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Eligible businesses are urged to submit applications before the 9 a.m. deadline on Friday, April 10.

NJEDA is also offering a $10 million Small Business Emergency Assistance Loan program that will launch sometime next week. The program will offer $100K working capital loans for small businesses with $5 million or less in revenue. Eligible businesses must have a physical location in New Jersey, have a minimum credit score of 600, and been in operation at least one year.

More information about these and other NJ EDA programs designed to help businesses during the coronavirus pandemic can be found on its website at