New Jersey Amends Workers Compensation Laws for First Responders

Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed two bills into law that amend provisions of the state’s workers’ compensation law to benefit first responders, including those who became ill after volunteering at the World Trade Center site in the days after 9/11.  

“Any first responder whose career has been cut short because of their work at Ground Zero, whether paid or volunteer, deserves to be honored and given the dignity of a full accidental disability retirement,” Gov. Murphy said. He added: “[W]e send a clear message to all of our heroes: We have your back. I am proud to sign legislation that will ensure the health benefits and compensation that these incredible men and women deserve.”

 Assembly Bill 4882 

Assembly Bill 4882, known as the Bill Ricci World Trade Center Rescue, Recovery, and Cleanup Operations Act, is named after a Clifton firefighter who volunteered in the 9/11 recovery/cleanup efforts. He now suffers from lung disease and can’t work as a firefighter, but was denied a full disability pension because he was injured while volunteering and not in the line of duty. Accordingly, the new law provides that a member or retiree of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) or the State Police Retirement System (SPRS) is eligible to receive an accidental disability retirement allowance for a permanent and total disability resulting from participation in 9/11 World Trade Center rescue, recovery, or cleanup operations.

Assembly Bill 4882 provides that permanent and total disability resulting from a qualifying condition or impairment of health is presumed to have occurred as a result of the performance of a member’s regular or assigned duties and not the result of the member’s willful negligence, unless the contrary can be proved by competent evidence, if the member participated in World Trade Center rescue, recovery, or cleanup operations for a minimum of eight hours. The presumption is available whether or not the member was under orders or instruction by an employer to participate. 

The new law also allows a member who did not participate in those operations for a minimum of eight hours to be eligible for the presumption provided that: 

  • The member participated in the rescue, recovery, or cleanup operations at the World Trade Center site between September 11, 2001 and September 12, 2001; 
  • The member sustained a documented physical injury at the World Trade Center site between September 11, 2001 and September 12, 2001 that is a qualifying condition or impairment of health resulting in a disability to the member that prevented the member from continuing to participate for a minimum of eight hours; and 
  • The injury that resulted in a disability that prevented the member from continuing to participate for a minimum of eight hours is the qualifying condition or impairment of health for which the member is seeking a presumption.

Assembly Bill 4882 also allows first responders to reclassify their retirement from a service retirement or an ordinary disability retirement to an accidental disability retirement if they participated in the World Trade Center rescue, recovery, or cleanup operations a minimum of eight hours and incurred a disability in retirement caused by a qualifying condition or impairment of health, which the medical board determines to be caused by the member’s participation in World Trade Center rescue, recovery or cleanup operations.

Assembly Bill 4882 requires the board of trustees to promulgate rules and regulations to implement the changes and notify members and retirees of the new benefits within 30 days of enactment. In order to be eligible for the presumption or recalculation, first responders must file, within two years of the effective date of the law, a written and sworn statement on a form provided by the board of trustees indicating the dates and locations of service.

Senate Bill 716

The Thomas P. Canzanella Twenty First Century First Responders Protection Act, which is named after a Hackensack firefighter who died of a heart attack and brain aneurysm after working at Ground Zero, creates a rebuttable presumption of workers’ compensation coverage for public safety workers in certain circumstances. Those covered by new law include paid or volunteer emergency, correctional, fire, police and medical personnel. 

Senate Bill 716 affirms that if a public safety worker can demonstrate that in the course of his or her employment, the worker is exposed to a serious communicable disease or a biological warfare or epidemic-related pathogen or biological toxin, all care or treatment of the worker—including services needed to ascertain whether the worker contracted the disease—is compensable under workers’ compensation, even if the worker is found not to have contracted the disease.  If the worker is found to have contracted a disease, there is a rebuttable presumption that any injury, disability, chronic or corollary illness or death caused by the disease is compensable under workers’ compensation.

The law also affirms workers’ compensation coverage for any injury, illness or death of any employee, including an employee who is not a public safety worker, arising from the administration of a vaccine related to threatened or potential bioterrorism or epidemic as part of an inoculation program in connection with the employee’s employment or in connection with any governmental program or recommendation for the inoculation of workers.

In addition, Senate Bill 716 establishes a rebuttable presumption that any condition or impairment of health of a public safety worker which may be caused by exposure to cancer-causing radiation or radioactive substances is a compensable occupational disease under workers’ compensation if the worker was exposed to a carcinogen, or the cancer-causing radiation or radioactive substance, in the course of employment.  Employers are required to maintain records of instances of the workers deployed where the presence of known carcinogens was indicated by documents provided to local fire or police departments under the Worker and Community Right to Know Act, and where events occurred which could result in exposure to those carcinogens.

Due to the extremely high likelihood that long-term firefighters will be repeatedly exposed to smoke and other carcinogens, in the case of any firefighter with seven or more years of service, the new law creates a rebuttable presumption that, if the firefighter suffers an injury, illness or death which may be caused by cancer, the cancer is a compensable occupational disease.

For more information about the amendments to New Jersey’s workers’ compensation lawor the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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