NEW JERSEY — Much of New Jersey's coronavirus regulations — and public criticism — stemmed from Gov. Phil Murphy's executive orders. But new laws have also shaped – or will shape – the state's COVID-19 response, and lawmakers say those pieces of legislation will continue to help New Jersey survive as the coronavirus crisis continues in 2021.
Even as many of these laws were passed last year, some of the most consequential changes in New Jersey may arrive in the future – and will likely impact you in 2021 even as the Murphy administration hopes that vaccines will bring an end to the coronavirus crisis. Read more: When Can You Get COVID-19 Vaccine In NJ? Here's The New 2021 List
And still more bills could provide a boost to New Jersey once they get Murphy's signature, such as the New Jersey Economic Recovery Act of 2020 that the governor himself touted last week.
That plan would establish economic-development programs to help rebuild New Jersey amid the coronavirus crisis. Read more: NJ Set To Pass $14 Billion Tax-Break Plan Amid COVID-19 Crisis
New Jersey passed a wide array of bills, dealing with the minimum wage, expungement and other issues, that are likely to have a sizable impact on people's lives. Read more: 8 New NJ Laws That May Impact Your Life In 2021
But many other consequential bills are directly related to the coronavirus. Here are seven:
In October, Murphy signed two bills (S2712 and S2785) ordering reforms to the long-term care industry. The bills implement recommendations from the Manatt Health Report, released on June 3, 2020.
S2712, which takes effect on Feb. 1st, requires minimum direct care staff-to-resident ratios in New Jersey long-term care facilities. Additionally, the legislation will establish the "Special Task Force on Direct Care Workforce Retention and Recruitment" to address staffing problems.
S2785, which took effect in October, requires long-term care facilities to institute policies that prevent social isolation of residents, addressing issues experienced by LTC residents and their families as a result of prohibitions and limitations on visitation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Staff caring for our most vulnerable residents in long-term care settings are the backbone of these facilities," said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. "As a nurse, I know there is no more important role than as a caregiver and all of those working in these facilities are healthcare heroes. We have to support this workforce and give them an opportunity to grow and advance in their careers, so it is not only a more rewarding job, but also results in improved care."
Primary sponsors for S2712 included Senators Brian P. Stack, Patrick J. Diegnan, and Joseph F. Vitale, and Assemblymembers Angelica M. Jimenez, Gordon M. Johnson, and Pedro Mejia.
Stack, D-Hudson, said New Jersey got an F rating and was ranked 43 out of 50 in direct care staffing hours per nursing home resident.
"These gaping problems have become even more apparent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is unacceptable and we all know we can do better," he said. "These are our parents and grandparents and soon, they will be us. This law will ensure that every resident in our nursing homes receives the care and attention we all deserve."
The Manatt Report cited longstanding staffing shortages as one of the systemic issues that exacerbated the industry's COVID-19-response challenges.
Specifically, S2712 requires:
One certified nursing assistant to every eight residents for the day shift;
One direct care staff member (RN, LPN, or CNA) to every 10 residents for the evening shift; and
One direct care staff member (RN, LPN, or CNA) to every 14 residents for the night shift.
The other bill, S2785, is intended to address the tremendous strain experienced by long-term care residents and families of residents as a result of the prohibition of, and limitation on, visitation during the pandemic, lawmakers said.
The bill requires facilities to create social isolation prevention policies to authorize residents of the facility to engage in in-person contact, communications, and religious and recreational activities with other facility residents and with family members, friends, and other external support systems.
"For months at the start of the pandemic, family and friends were not allowed to visit their loved ones in long-term care facilities to mitigate the spread of COVID-19," said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, chair of the Aging and Senior Services Committee and prime sponsor of the new law. "Though this precaution was intended to protect the physical health of residents, for many the sustained social isolation took a toll on their mental health."
Allowing New Jersey to borrow up to $9.9 billion:
Murphy signed the Emergency Bond Act into law in July, allowing New Jersey to borrow up to $9.9 billion to address the state's financial crisis. Under the law, the state had the authority to issue bonds totaling $2.7 billion for the remainder of the extended Fiscal Year 2020, which ran through Sept. 30.
The law lets the state issue up to an additional $7.2 billion for the nine-month Fiscal Year 2021 that runs from Oct. 1, 2020 through June 30th, for a combined amount of up to $9.9 billion to be issued over the two periods.
"The passage of this legislation is an important step in New Jersey's recovery from the economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic," Murphy said in July. "While this is by no means a silver bullet, the ability to responsibly borrow is essential to meeting our fiscal needs in the coming year."
State Republicans, however, railed against the law and sued to stop Murphy's "ill-advised and unconstitutional borrowing."
Today, at about 4 pm, the @NJGOP, represented by @senatortesta & his law firm, joined w/ Senate & Assembly Republican leadership & hard working #NJ families & sued @GovMurphy to stop his ill-advised & unconstitutional borrowing. We will take back our State. #NJGOP #LeadRight pic.twitter.com/UZpfBpFfN9
— Douglas Steinhardt (@DSteinhardtEsq) July 16, 2020
State Sen. Joe Pennacchio said "it is the definition of insanity" to "blindly approve" borrowing $9.9 billion when the executive branch "has not even proposed a budget yet for next year and we have no clue how much we will actually need." Read more: Murphy Signs 3 NJ Bills Into Law, May Borrow $9B Amid Coronavirus
To stay prepared for current and future public-health crises, Murphy signed legislation last week ensuring long-term-care facilities and hospitals have enough personal protective equipment.
The legislation requires licensed facilities in New Jersey to maintain an emergency inventory. The law previously passed the Assembly in September 79-0, and the Senate in October 35-0.
Under the new law, long-term-care facilities must maintain stockpiles of PPE sufficient for 30 or 60 days, depending on the number of facilities the health system owns. Hospitals must maintain a 90-day supply of PPE at all times. Read more: Gov. Murphy Signs 4 NJ Coronavirus Bills In Law, Vetoes 2 Others
Increasing wages for direct-care workers
New Jersey passed a law in September requiring direct-care workers in long-term-care facilities to earn at least $3 higher than the state's minimum wage.
New Jersey's minimum wage for most employers stands at $12 per hour after rising by $1 on Jan. 1st. It will increase by $1 per year until it reaches $15 to begin in 2024.
"Importantly, (that) new law is not linked to the current pandemic; it enhances this workforce's hourly compensation for the duration of the public health emergency and beyond," he said.
The Fiscal Year 2021 budget also contains a $78 million appropriation to increase front-line certified nurse aide wages in nursing facilities, he said.
Getting sick on the job
Days into New Jersey's state of emergency, Murphy signed legislation which prohibits an employer, during the ongoing emergency, from terminating or refusing to reinstate an employee who has, or is likely to have, an infectious disease that requires the employee to miss time at work.
Under the bill, an employee who requests or takes time off from work, based on the recommendation of a medical professional, may not be terminated or refused reinstatement if the employee is likely to infect others in the workplace.
"Our message in New Jersey has been loud and clear: if you're sick, stay home," Murphy said. "No one should fear retribution from their employer for an absence deemed necessary by a medical professional, particularly for an illness as communicable as COVID-19." Read more: NJ Gov. Phil Murphy Signs 16 Coronavirus Bills Into Law
Benefits for essential employees
Murphy signed in September a law providing benefits to those who contract the coronavirus on the job. Under the law, essential employees whose jobs require interaction with the public during the public health emergency will be eligible for benefits normally given to workers who suffer an injury or illness on the job if they contract COVID-19.
The workmen's compensation benefit will be provided unless a "preponderance of evidence" indicates an essential worker was not exposed to COVID-19 on the job, lawmakers said.
Even so, the New Jersey Business and Industry Association criticized the bill.
"Over the course of this pandemic, we have heard Governor Murphy express sympathy and empathy for New Jersey businesses struggling to survive," said association President and CEO Michele Siekerka. "Today, we are disappointed to say that those words ring hollow." Read more: Gov. Murphy Signs NJ Coronavirus Legislation, 8 Bills Into Law
With reporting from Tom Davis/Patch