Employees in New Jersey who feel their health is at risk when at work due to a lack of COVID-19 protections can refuse to work and still receive unemployment benefits.

It may not be the easiest thing to prove, but it is a potential out for folks who feel they're being forced to work and have no choice but to risk their own health.

During a daily media briefing on the coronavirus pandemic, New Jersey Department of Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said state law makes it clear that collecting unemployment insurance benefits is lawful when a worker raises substantial health and safety concerns and the employer fails to remedy such concerns.

"This determination is highly fact-specific and it is not easily met," Asaro-Angelo said.

The Department on Thursday released guidance so businesses know their rights when someone refuses to return to work, and so workers are aware of their options when they feel returning to work would be dangerous.

"No one should be forced to choose between their livelihood and the threat of contracting COVID-19," Asaro-Angelo said.

Asaro-Angelo's comments came on the same day multiple rallies took place across the Garden State urging Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature to take action on a proposed executive order and/or legislation that would further protect workers refusing to work in unsafe conditions.

"New Jersey workers are facing dire health and safety hazards throughout this pandemic, and it's going to continue throughout this summer," Adil Ahmed, of Make the Road New Jersey, said from a rally site in Totowa.

A proposed executive order from several organizations would enforce "pandemic protections," including a worker rights hotline that allows workers to complain about unsafe workplace conditions and empowers worker organizations to enforce protections during this health crisis.

Employees and workers rights' advocates held a video press conference early Thursday to launch the day of rallies. They were joined by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainiei Huttle, D-Bergen, who's sponsoring legislation addressing the issue.

"As a legislator, I feel we have to do so much more than put a sign in the window and thank you," Vainieri Huttle told essential workers on the Zoom event. "We really need to take the next steps and ensure that you have safe workplace conditions."

To encourage employers, employees and customers to do their part in promoting health and safety when businesses relaunch, Gov. Murphy revealed a set of standards known as the One Jersey Pledge during his Thursday media briefing. Signs posted at businesses and works sites, Murphy said, are "a pact between businesses and consumers on the one hand, and employers and employees on the other."

"It's the sign that says that we're all in this together. It's the sign that says getting past COVID-19 is our top priority. It's the way we know we can build the confidence we need to get our economy back to being where we know it can be: strong and fair for every community and for every family," Murphy said.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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