New Jersey officials say workers across the state have lodged more than 3,300 complaints against their employers since last November, alleging safety violations that ranged from dental assistants being asked to don raincoats as protective gear to companies allowing COVID-positive employees into the office.
Others said their bosses didn’t believe the coronavirus was real.
A WNYC/Gothamist review of those records—2,740 complaints collected up until June—show restaurants and government offices were the most commonly cited, though employees across various industries reported outbreaks and feeling unsafe at work. The complaints were made under an executive order Governor Phil Murphy signed in October 2020. It set safety guidelines for public and private workplaces and allowed employees to report infractions.
The New Jersey Department of Labor investigated all of these complaints and said 124 cases remain under review. The rest are closed or resolved. Spokeswoman Angie Delli-Santi said all inspections were done remotely via phone or email, and no business was forced to close as a result. She said when most employers were told they were violating COVID-19 protocols, they took steps to improve conditions and sent investigators photos or purchase orders to prove they made fixes.
“What we found, overwhelmingly, is that employers were very concerned about the health and safety of their workers and customers, and wanted to do the right thing,” she said in an email, adding that 51 staff members and 10 temporary employees sorted through the complaints.
The allegations, obtained through a public records request, offer a window into what life has been like for employees who couldn’t work from home. Many were nervous about going to work but were even more fearful of getting fired or losing pay.
“We are all scared to go in, but if we don't, we will be fired,” a worker at a mortgage firm in Shrewsbury wrote in a complaint.
Restaurants received the largest number of complaints, followed by government agencies, clerical work, food service, retail and sales and car dealerships, according to an analysis by WNYC/Gothamist. Most complaints were filed in November and December. Workers alleged stores were not enforcing capacity limits then in place.
Target, the retail store, had 19 complaints filed across 14 stores. A Target spokesman said they reviewed the concerns and worked with the store managers to remind them of the company’s safety protocols.
ShopRite had 24 complaints alleging its grocery stores weren’t notifying other employees when someone tested positive. The company didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Union County College had 19 complaints alleging administrators were not requiring temperature checks, contact tracing or allowing remote work last fall. The college said it cooperated with the investigation and determined the complaints to be “unfounded.”
Records show multiple people alleged their colleagues who tested positive for COVID-19 or were symptomatic continued to work in person. “They are running fevers and throwing up and continue to work without any tests,” one person wrote about a Starbucks in Bayonne.
The case was closed after state officials notified the employer of the issue. Starbucks, which received 12 other complaints for various stores, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Another person said the Lowe's Home Improvement in Flemington permitted six people with COVID to keep working. That case was also closed because the complainant didn’t leave contact information. Lowe’s didn’t comment.
Lou Kimmel, executive director of New Labor in New Brunswick, said the lack of in-person inspections sometimes meant employers could easily dodge regulators, prolonging dangerous working conditions. His organization filed a complaint against Access Bio, where workers who assembled COVID-19 tests alleged the company didn’t give its employees breaks to wash their hands or allow for social distancing. After a month of waiting for the state to take action, Kimmel said his organization took matters into their own hands.
“The state was basically saying that the company wasn't responding to their calls,” Kimmel said. “The conditions you were hearing were still the same. So eventually we had to go and do an action, by mobilizing with some of the workers.”
A representative for Access Bio said it takes worker safety seriously and was glad the investigation was closed.
Now, statewide COVID-19 protections like social distancing, cleaning protocols, remote work and indoor masking have been rolled back. When Murphy ended the New Jersey’s public health emergency in July, the executive order that created an outlet for complaints ended, too.
“We didn't get rid of this virus yet, and some of those same problems are still there,” said Cecelia Gilligan Leto, project director for the New Jersey Work Environment Council, a coalition of labor and community groups. “We loosened some of the protections.”
Oversight Without Teeth?
Other complaints raised concerns about unsafe conditions for students. The Goddard School’s preschool location in Sicklerville was allegedly allowing sick children and teachers to continue coming in. “The school needs to be shut down,” the complainant wrote. In Boonton, a school’s entire night custodian crew was reportedly out sick and weren’t replaced. The school remained open, the complaint alleged.
“The enforcement was not perfect, but it absolutely gave a structure of some of the things that an employer should be doing to protect the workers,” said Leto.
Grievances against public entities were often forwarded to the agencies that oversaw them, such as the Department of Health or Education Department, and then closed, the database of complaints show. Other filings were dismissed because they didn’t address COVID-related issues. Cases were also occasionally closed because the employer couldn’t be reached or the employer denied the claims. But in many instances, the database didn’t always say whether specific allegations were actually resolved.
“The Department of Labor didn't really have the full power to do anything other than inform employers about what they should be doing,” Kimmel said. “But there's no way to assure that that would be happening. There was no fine structure there. And if there was no follow-up to get to the point where a business could be shut down for violation, that's a problem.”
Governor Murphy’s pandemic orders gave officials the ability to close a business and subpoena employers for information, but officials said they didn’t exercise those powers.
Michele Siekerka, the president and CEO of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said the executive order gave employers clarity on what to do, but she said most were already trying their best to keep workers safe.
“Many of our businesses were already imposing those types of requirements at the workplace prior to when the mandate came out,” she said. She added that she didn’t hear from businesses that expressed concerns or problems with the executive order or its enforcement.
Leto, from the Work Environmental Council, said despite enforcement flaws, the executive order helped fill a void left by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The federal agency inspects and cites workplaces based on regulatory standards, but OSHA has not issued COVID-19 safety standards for industries other than health care. They have released guidelines, but those are voluntary and don’t face penalties.
With COVID-19 cases rising in New Jersey again and hospitalizations surpassing 1,000 for the first time since May, labor leaders worry the absence of last year’s protections could put workers at risk of getting sick or bringing the virus home, especially as only 60% of the state’s 9.3 million residents are fully vaccinated. While Murphy is requiring vaccinations or weekly testing for schools, prisons, health care facilities and state offices, most private employers are setting their own rules.
“[COVID] was an invisible killer and it's still there,” Leto said. “With the Delta variant that's coming back, that's really scaring workers again.”