On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Camden County.
Antell, Baime and Thomas, JJ. Baime, J.A.D.
This appeal requires us to reconcile two apparently inconsistent statutes. N.J.S.A. 34:15-44 provides that an injured public employee must remain on the payroll while receiving workers' compensation benefits. N.J.S.A. 11A:8-1 states that a permanent public employee may be laid off for economy, efficiency or other related reasons. At issue is whether a public employee who is currently receiving workers' compensation benefits may be discharged along with others in a general reduction in force caused by budgetary problems.
Plaintiff Eleanor Novak was employed by defendant Camden County Health Services as an occupational therapy aide. On April 25, 1990, she sustained a work related injury and began receiving temporary disability benefits. As a result of the County's financial difficulties, defendant's chief executive officer approved a reorganization plan which eliminated the position of occupational therapy aide. On March 1, 1991, plaintiff and four other employees holding the same job title received termination notices. Three of these individuals had accumulated greater seniority rights than plaintiff. Plaintiff and the others were discharged effective April 15, 1991. We digress to note that plaintiff's termination was without prejudice to her
right to receive workers' compensation. She continues to collect temporary disability benefits.
Plaintiff instituted this action in the Chancery Division, seeking to restrain defendant from terminating her employment while she is receiving workers' compensation. The Chancery Division granted injunctive relief, directing defendant to continue to list plaintiff as an employee and make full pension contributions during her disability. In reaching this Conclusion, the court reasoned that N.J.S.A. 34:15-44 entitles an injured employee to be maintained on the payroll and to receive all statutory benefits attendant to the status of employee while collecting workers' compensation benefits. This statutory entitlement was said to supersede the right of a public entity to abolish a job title to affect economy or efficiency. We disagree and reverse.
We begin our analysis with N.J.S.A. 34:15-44 which reads as follows:
When any payment of compensation under this chapter shall be due to any public employee, the name of the injured employee, or in case of his death, the names of the persons to whom payment is to be made as his dependents, shall be carried upon the payroll, and payment shall be made in the same manner and from the same source in which and from which the wages of the injured employee were paid. In event that any extraordinary payment larger than the weekly rate of compensation shall be due, such payment shall be made from any fund available for the maintenance or incidental expenses of the institution, department, board or governing body under and by which the employee was employed. (emphasis added).
This section was a part of supplemental legislation enacted in 1913 which extended the workers' compensation system to employees of "official bodies." L.1913, c. 145. Although it has survived over the years, we have found no reported opinion dealing with its precise meaning or its application.
N.J.S.A. 11A:8-1 provides in pertinent part:
A permanent employee may be laid off for economy, efficiency or other related reason. The employee shall be demoted in lieu of layoff whenever possible. A permanent employee shall receive 45 days' written notice, unless in State government a greater time period is ordered by the commissioner, which shall be served personally or by certified mail, of impending layoff or ...