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Levinson Axelrod Partner Fought for Law That is Now Protecting COVID-19 First Responders

Richard Marcolus understands what it means to sacrifice your body for your work. Today he is a Workers Compensation law expert and Partner at Levinson Axelrod, but Marcolus began his career as a Union Carpenter. After the September 11 attacks on America, Rich saw a glaring omission in New Jersey’s Worker’s Compensation laws— first responders were not given the protections they needed when putting their bodies on the line to protect our citizens.

After a nearly two-decade long lobbying effort, New Jersey implemented the Canzanella law in July of 2019. The new law gives certain workers defined as First Responders an easier path in order to collect Worker’s Compensation benefits due to certain medical conditions.

Formally called the Thomas P. Canzanella Twenty First Century First Responders Protection Act, the law is named in honor of a Hackensack Deputy Chief firefighter who sadly passed away at the age of 50 due to a heart attack. Chief Canzanella worked in the cleanup efforts at Ground Zero after September 11-- Medical experts had linked his the heart condition to the toxic materials he was exposed to during that time.

The law covers police, firefighters, ambulance personnel and others defined as ‘front line workers’ who are exposed to toxins, carcinogens and other deleterious substances.

Earlier versions of the bill were vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, but with new leadership Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bill into law on July 8, 2019.

“Thousands of courageous volunteers put their lives on the line in order to save those affected by the devastation of 9/11,” said Governor Murphy in his signing statement last July.“Today we send a clear message to all of our heroes: We have your back.”

While the bill took too long to become law, the timing is now fortuitous considering the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently ravishing New Jersey.

“The law recognizes that an exposure during a pandemic would also be covered,” says Marcolus.“This raises issues for those exposed to the Coronavirus and what benefits they may be entitled to.”

The law states that these First Responders who have medical conditions as a result of an exposure to the virus, there is a legal presumption that the exposure and conditions are work related. This would require workers compensation carriers to cover medical benefits, treatment and temporary disability while the worker is unable to work.

“I watched Rich fight for years in Trenton to get this bill passed-- who knew that the timing would be so useful for these front line heroes that are now keeping the state going during this crisis,” said Marcolus’ law partner Michael Fusco. “The great thing about Rich is that he is still fighting to make the law even better.”

Marcolus is now lobbying for new legislation that would expand the definition of first responders in the context of COVID-19’s “essential workers.”

On March 16, 2020, Gov. Murphy issued Executive Order No. 104, containing aggressive social distancing measures to mitigate further spread of COVID-19 in New Jersey. This included some general bifurcations of jobs that were considered “essential” and those that were “non-essential.”

“We need our laws to be clear that those who put their bodies at risk at work are covered,” said Marcolus. “We need protect those men and women who are going to work every day despite the ‘stay in place’ order— warehouse workers, truck drivers, food delivery personnel.”

Despite the Canzanella law being limited in scope to First Responders, there may still be recourse for those who can prove they contracted the virus at work.

“Nurses, home health aides, testing site workers—all of these employees would have the potential right to be paid workers’ compensation benefits if they get sick from work,” said Marcolus.“This is particularly important for those workers who may not have adequate health insurance or paid time off through their employer.”

While New Jersey’s pre-COVID-19 unemployment rate was less than 4% in February of 2020, the uninsured rate was more than 8%, creating a class of workers that are employed but without health insurance benefits.

“Thankfully, Workers Compensation coverage is mandatory for all employers in New Jersey, so if you have a job, you should be covered,” said Marcolus.“If there is a strong link between the employment and the exposure, I believe that it should be compensable.”

He hopes that his work can help those workers who are forced to go to work during the COVID-19 crisis but fear that they will not have access to treatment if they are exposed.

If you or a loved one are a First Responder or Essential Worker who has contracted COVID-19 in the workplace, please contact Richard J. Marcolus at Levinson Axelrod, P.A. to discuss your rights to Worker’ Compensation benefits and workplace exposure. Mr. Marcolus can be reached at his office in Belford at (732) 655-8131 or by email at marcolus@njlawyers.com.

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