Bill to protect temporary workers narrowly passes in Senate
Thousands of temporary workers scored a long-fought victory Thursday when the state Senate narrowly passed a bill that would create workplace protections for them.
Cheers, applause, and shouts of “¡Sí, se puede!” (yes, we can!) erupted in the Senate gallery after 21 senators — the minimum needed to pass a bill — voted yes on a measure that’s known as the Temp Workers’ Bill of Rights.
The bill now heads to the governor for signing — and he’s expected to do so. It will provide protections including equal compensation, transparency in job assignment, anti-retaliation measures, and elimination of excessive fees for more than 127,000 essential temp workers who work in New Jersey.
The measure passed both chambers last year, including twice in the Senate after a procedural error required a do-over. But Gov. Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed it in October, citing concerns about enforcement and recommending tweaks. Assembly lawmakers approved the amendments, but some senators withdrew their support after lobbying by staffing agencies who warned the bill would hike costs for employers.
Thursday, the vote fell almost entirely along party lines. Three Democrats — Sens. Shirley Turner, Fred Madden, and James Beach — did not vote, but Republican Sen. Vince Polistina pushed the bill over the finish line by voting with the Democrats. Polistina said he voted yes because he both supports the bill and wanted to honor how Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), who has been absent from the Legislature for months due to illness, would have voted.
Before the vote, workers cheered Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union), the bill’s prime sponsor, and other supportive legislators as they made their way to the Senate floor.
After the bill’s passage, jubilant workers hugged and celebrated in the Senate balcony and outside Senate chambers.
“I’m very happy today because I fought for 22 years,” said Reynalda Cruz, a temporary worker from New Brunswick and advocate for the workers’ rights group New Labor. “For all the workers in New Jersey, it’s a victory.”
Cruz, along with temp workers Steven Mercado, Diana Bello, and a few dozen others, handed out informational flyers to passers-by in a Statehouse corridor before the vote.
“The agencies just take advantage of all the people that work for them,” said Mercado, of Jersey City.
Cruz said she got no sick or vacation days in 14 years of temp work in warehouses. Bello said she got fired after challenging the staffing agency that employed her about high transportation fees. She watched the vote on crutches — she’s been out of work for four months after surgery for a foot injury that resulted from a temp job that required her to stand all day.
“It is not a secret that the fight has been constant for all the abuses and exploitation we live in while working for the temp agencies,” said Bello, who lives in Elizabeth.
Cryan said his bill is intended to help workers who are “vulnerable to mistreatment” because they’re first-generation Americans and people of color.
“This is an invisible workforce that has been left vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment. They have been cheated out of their wages, denied benefits, forced to work in unsafe conditions, and charged unjustified fees by employers,” he said.
Sara Cullinane, executive director of Elizabeth-based immigrants’ and workers’ rights nonprofit Make the Road New Jersey, called the bill “common sense legislation.”
“There are more than 125,000 temp workers here in New Jersey performing essential work every single day throughout the pandemic, making sure that people’s packages are delivered, that they have food on their shelves, yet they’re deprived with the most basic labor protections — minimum wage, paid sick days, health insurance,” Cullinane said. “The Temp Workers’ Bill of Rights will remedy that and will provide basic protections to a group of workers who are essential and far too often exploited.”
The vote came the same day the New Jersey Monitor reported that 17 of the temporary staffing agencies that belong to the lobbying group fighting the bill aren’t registered to operate in New Jersey.
That’s why Joseph Niver, an attorney with Make the Road New Jersey, especially savored the bill’s passage Thursday.
“This is just the start of us getting accountability for the workers who have really suffered from abuses, whether they be OSHA violations, minimum wage, overtime, unlawful transportation deductions,” Niver said. “Workers have been fighting for this for decades, and now starts the process of accountability for these agencies that have recklessly broken the law.”