The Senate went ahead with a plan that would shift COVID-19 medical costs onto New Jersey’s workers’ compensation system despite warnings that it could cost the state millions of dollars in federal funding for the same purposes.
The Senate on Thursday passed S-2380 (Sweeney, D-3), which would create a rebuttable presumption that if an essential worker contracts coronavirus, she or he did so at work. Coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID 19, are already covered under workers’ comp, but like any other contagious disease, it’s difficult to show that the infection took place at work as opposed to riding public transportation or shopping at a supermarket.
Creating a rebuttable presumption would make virtually all essential workers who contract the disease workers’ compensation cases, since it’s nearly impossible to prove an infection did not happen at work. The fear in the business community is the sheer number of COVID-19 cases could overwhelm the workers’ comp system and send employers’ insurance premiums skyrocketing.
“Obviously, if a worker gets sick with COVID-19, the first priority is to make sure they are taken care of,” said NJBIA Vice President of Government Affairs Ray Cantor. “But we don’t need workers’ comp to do this.”
Private insurance companies provide coverage for testing and treatment of COVID-19, and for those who do not have insurance, the federal government has made $100 million available to hospitals to treat the uninsured.
The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires employers to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave for employees who get the disease or who are under quarantine. Employers will be able to recoup these costs with federal tax credits when they remit their quarterly payroll taxes. And the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program provides unemployment benefits for workers who typically do not qualify for unemployment benefits.
“This bill effectively shifts the costs from the federal government and onto the state for treating and compensating workers who get COVID-19,” Cantor explained. “If workers’ comp is paying for treatments and income replacement, the federal programs set up to do the same thing won’t be used. Meanwhile, New Jersey employers, many of whom are struggling for survival, can expect to see workers’ comp premiums increase.”
The bill faces an uncertain future in the Assembly. NJBIA has reached out to leaders in both parties and in both houses about the problems with the bill. The New Jersey Business Coalition also submitted a letter to the Legislature last week expressing concern. Business owners and operators are encouraged to reach out to their Assembly representatives as well.