NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – The woman standing on French Street in the rain Thursday has recovered after falling sick with COVID-19 in April, but she said her employer has not paid her for the two weeks she was quarantined at home and nursing herself back to health.
She said she makes minimum wage working at JM Staffing Solution, and losing two weeks’ pay made it difficult for her to buy food and pay her rent.
“Yes, I have that concern,” she said when asked if she is worried she will lose her job at the temp agency in retaliation for speaking out. “But, I’m going to make a complaint about it.”
The woman and about 25 others protested on the sidewalk outside the business on French Street for about 25 minutes on Thursday afternoon.
Some brandished signs that resembled coffins to make a statement that employers should not put their bottom lines above employees’ health. Others carried signs that read, “Protect the most vulnerable.”
They chanted slogans such as “The people united will never be divided” and “No more wage theft” in English and Spanish.
The protest was organized by the New Brunswick-based grassroots worker advocacy group New Labor. It was part of a larger event that included protests in Totowa, Wharton, Edison and other locations.
The “Day of Action for Right to Refuse Unsafe Work” brought together several labor organizations across the state to shine a light on what they say are businesses that have created unsafe working conditions for essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
TAPinto New Brunswick tried repeatedly to contact JM Staffing Solution for comment.
No one answered the front door at about 3:30 p.m. Thursday at its location at 156 French St. The office appeared dark and no workers could be seen.
A man named Frank who identified himself as the manager of the location returned a phone message, but he refused to comment on the workers’ accusations.
There is no email address on the company's website.
The other purpose of the event was to help pressure Gov. Phil Murphy to adopt stronger measures to protect workers from retaliation. Louis Kimmel, the director of New Labor, said many essential workers have been forced to choose between their job or their health during the pandemic.
The event was launched Thursday morning by a video conference linking the leaders of labor organizations that were going to host protests throughout the day with Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle.
Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) said she is in the process of drafting legislation that would provide New Jersey workers the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions.
“As we begin to reopen New Jersey and begin the road back to the new normal, sort to speak, we cannot leave you behind,” she said Thursday. “So we must ensure that the proper protections are in place for workers to do your job safely and we must ensure you have the power to raise your voice without retribution and that’s what this legislation calls for. It protects each and every one of you because you protected each and every one of us during these challenges.”
Kimmel said three other employees at JM Staffing Solution have told New Labor they were not paid when they took time off to care for their children when New Brunswick schools closed their doors and instituted online instruction starting in March.
Kimmel said they also told New Labor that social distancing is not practiced when workers are driven to sites in company vans.
The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act went into effect on April 1 and requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. It provides that employees of covered employers are eligible for two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at the employee’s regular rate of pay where the employee is unable to work because the employee is quarantined and/or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis.
It also provides employees with two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay because the employee is unable to work because of a bona fide need to care for an individual subject to quarantine or to care for a child whose school or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19.
In April, Murphy signed the Earned Sick Leave Act to allow employees to use earned sick leave where the employee is not able to work because of a closure of the employee’s workplace or the school or place of care of a child of the employee, by order of a public official due or because of a state of emergency declared by the governor due to an epidemic or other public health emergency.
Murphy declared a state of emergency on March 9 via Executive Order 103.