BUSINESS & ECONOMY

NJ businesses ask governor for guidance on employee COVID tests

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Chef Marilyn Schlossbach owns Langosta Lounge and other Asbury Park restaurants that currently employ about 80 people. She’s among many business owners who wonder how they’ll manage back to work testing for COVID-19. She doesn’t offer her staff health care and can’t pay for testing.

“We did send out an alert with locations that people can go get free testing and advised that they should do it every week,” said Schlossbach. “Free testing is absolutely necessary to continue if we want to really monitor this.”

Gov. Phil Murphy’s constantly urging residents to get tested.

“Everyone should go out and get tested. If you were at a crowded bar or restaurant, you should get tested. If you were at a protest, go get tested. Everyone should know if they are carrying the coronavirus,” he said.

For now, testing is free at more than 250 sites around the state. But for how long, and what about workers? The state provided initial testing for staff at health care facilities like nursing homes — where the virus spread rapidly with lethal consequences. But who will pick up the ongoing tab?

“Many of the people who work at nursing homes are middle income or low-wage workers. And the notion that, in addition to doing their job, they also have to pay for this test, seems to be an undue burden on a set of workers who’ve already been sacrificing so much,” said Milly Silva, executive vice president of 1199SEIU.

Diagnostic testing’s a snapshot that can provide officials with data on the virus’ spread. But experts say it can’t really guarantee a virus-free workforce.

Federal guidelines warn, “Employers should act cautiously on negative SARS-CoV-2 test results … [and] should not presume that individuals who test negative … present no hazard to others in the workplace.”

Epidemiologist Judith Lightfoot says employers should absolutely require masks, social distancing and hand hygiene. She advises scanning staff temperatures and sending those with fevers home because it signals an illness that could be COVID, even though many positive cases don’t spike a fever.

“It’s just a screening mechanism. Are you sick? And if you are sick, then we don’t want you in the workplace because you have the potential of making other people sick,” Lightfoot said. “If they test then, and they’re positive then, they’ll be quarantined at home for the standard 14 days.”

But she’s less enthusiastic about regular workplace testing.

“Unless I’m going to test you every two or three days to try to see if you’ve been exposed, maybe that will work but that’s quite expensive,” she said.

A top-notch insurance plan might cover it. Self-insured, not so much. Insurance industry officials say federal guidelines require coverage only for medically-necessary testing.

“Public health surveillance or employment surveillance, it doesn’t need to be required to be covered the employer’s insurance plan,” said Ward Sanders, president of the New Jersey Association of Health Plans.

Meanwhile, New Jersey hasn’t set a state policy. Schlossbach said it should.

“Everybody has a different perception about the rules and regulations, and have everybody get on the same page,” she said.