N.J. lawmakers act to pay workers furloughed during shutdown

New Jersey state employees rally outside the Statehouse in Trenton calling for retroactive pay for those who missed work because of the government shutdown this month.

TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers came one step closer Thursday to paying state employees who missed work during the government shutdown this month.

During a special session Thursday morning, the state Senate approved a measure calling for retroactive pay to all state employees who were involuntarily furloughed during the shutdown. For the bill to become law, the Assembly would also need to approve it and Gov. Christie would need to sign it.

Shortly after the Senate vote was held Thursday, state employees rallied outside of the Statehouse in support of the back pay.

Many state government agencies were  shut down from July 1 to 3. The majority of affected employees missed work on July 3, a Monday, but Motor Vehicle Commission employees as well as workers at state parks and beaches also missed work over the weekend.  Christie said Wednesday that he would approve legislation to restore back pay for those workers if it reaches his desk.

The Senate passed the bill Thursday by a 31-0 vote. Between 30,000 and 35,000 workers would receive retroactive pay if the bill becomes law.

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Linda Greenstein, a Democrat, said the back pay would “make a radical difference” to the employees affected.

“People do live paycheck to paycheck,” Greenstein said. “And just losing one day’s pay really affects people.”

Senators said Thursday that they were unsure exactly how much money would be paid in total to the furloughed workers.

Some legislators, such as Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, have called on Christie to use executive power to pay the employees. Whether or not Christie has the ability to do that was a point of disagreement Thursday. Christie has said he does not.

“If the governor wants a bill to sign, what’s the big deal?” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat and a sponsor of the Senate bill.

While addressing employees at the rally outside the Statehouse, Prieto said the Assembly would return to the Statehouse before the end of the month to approve the bill.

“That’s not a problem at all,” Prieto said. “But the one thing I will tell you is [Christie] has always found a way to do things, and I think he could do this” by executive order.

During the shutdown, Christie aroused public anger by spending time with his family on Island Beach State Park, a beach that had been declared closed to the public. An image of the governor lounging in a beach chair — and internet memes inspired by the image — quickly went viral.

Christie ordered the shutdown of nonessential services after the Legislature missed the deadline for approving a budget for fiscal year 2018 that began July 1. Christie had insisted on legislation to restructure the state’s largest health insurer, Horizon Blue Cross, before he would sign the budget. While Sweeney was amenable, Prieto balked. A compromise was reached and the shutdown ended.

The rally, organized by the New Jersey branch of the Communications Workers of America, lasted about 30 minutes. State employees joined together in chants calling for the back pay, held signs critical of Christie, and listened to several speakers, including Prieto and Greenstein.

Ron Roberts, 56, who processes mail for the Division of Pension and Benefits, involuntarily missed work during the shutdown and was among those at Thursday’s rally. He said he came to the rally to express his dismay with Christie, who Roberts said was “breaking the law” by not using his executive power to pay the state employees.

“We wanted to come to work. We were forced out of work,” Roberts said. “It’s sad that we have to come here to fight for one to three days of pay.”