The combination of New Jersey state and federal laws protecting the health of workers is a patchwork of rights, but can provide strong protections for workers with health issues. This article provides an overview of these protections.
What law protects workers from unsafe working conditions?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) law requires employers to provide a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. This protection, called the General Duty clause, provides a method of addressing workplace dangers, from acts of workplace violence to unsafe machines to activities that can cause accidents. To contact OSHA, call 1-800-321-OSHA (1-800-321-6742).
What if I complain to OSHA and my employer retaliates?
It is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against a worker who has filed an OSHA complaint. Any worker who is subject to retaliation can file a complaint with OSHA. The agency deadline for such complaints is 30 days. Workers in New Jersey subjected to such retaliation may also be able to file claims under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), which has a one-year statute of limitations (or time to file). A claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy has a two-year time limit.
What if I get hurt on the job?
If you have a work-related accident or injury, or an occupational illness such as carpel tunnel syndrome due to repetitive motion, or hearing loss due to factory noise issues, you can file a workers compensation claim. Your workers compensation benefits must provide reasonable medical treatment coverage, which can include physical therapy. If you are out of work for more than seven days, you can receive temporary benefits retroactive to the first day of lost time at a rate of 70% of your weekly average wage. You may also be entitled to permanent total disability or permanent partial disability benefits. You can contact a private attorney specializing in workers compensation for assistance. The attorney cannot charge up front, but will be paid through a court order, by the insurance company, when the case is resolved.
What if I need a job accommodation?
If your job is harming your health or you are having trouble doing your job because of a serious health condition or disability, you have the right under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to request reasonable accommodation. You must be able to do the essential functions of your job and the accommodation must not cause an undue hardship on the employer. Your request to the employer will result in an interactive process to try to enable you to do the work, or to resolve an issue to allow you to do the work without harm to your health. If the matter cannot be resolved with the employer, you can file a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights (NJDCR) within 180 days of the problem, or within 300 days to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If the employer terminates you without reasonably accommodating your health condition, or retaliates against you for such requests, you can file a discrimination claim in court within two years.
What if I need time off to recover?
If you need time off for illness, to heal, or for treatment, the New Jersey Paid Sick Leave Act of 2018 provides for the accrual of one hour of earned sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to 40 hours each year. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides 12 weeks of protected unpaid leave for employees who have worked at least 1,250 hours in the last 12 months for an employer with more than 50 employees within 75 miles of your worksite. Protected time off can also be requested as a reasonable accommodation under the NJLAD or ADA. If you work for a smaller employer not covered by FMLA, the protection may be limited. With a larger employer, you may be entitled to a period of protection even longer than 12 weeks if you have a date certain to return to work.
What is temporary disability?
If you have a disability and your doctor certifies that you are unable to work, or if your employer is unable to grant your request for an accommodation, you can seek temporary disability benefits to provide time to heal and recuperate. The New Jersey temporary disability program provides benefits for disabilities and health problems that prevent you from doing your current work. If your disability is work related, you should first try to file a workers compensation claim, and if it is contested, you can seek temporary disability while the claim is being litigated. Such claims are filed with the New Jersey Department of Labor. If you have substantial recovery from your illness but your employer does not have light duty work for you, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits until you return to work. Unemployment benefits eligibility requires the ability to do at least some sedentary work.
What if I can no longer do the work because of the effects on my health?
If your job is substantially aggravating your health and your employer cannot provide accommodations, you may be able to leave your employment for medical good cause and obtain unemployment benefits, but such an application requires careful documentation. Prior to leaving employment, you need to request work that protects you from the harm. The best practice would be to obtain medical documentation or a note stating that your current position causes your health problems and that your job, or aspects of your job, need to be changed. If your employer fails to offer alternative employment after reviewing such information, you may be able to establish medical good cause for leaving your job, which will allow you to get unemployment benefits.
It is important that you know your rights in these circumstances. If your income is low and you have a legal problem, you may seek advice from LSNJ’s Workers Legal Rights Project by contacting LSNJ-LAWSM, LSNJ’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529) or apply for help online.