In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Rutgers Occupational Training and Education Consortium (OTEC) partnered with Rutgers Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) and the Protect NJ Workers Coalition to create the free NJ COVID-19 Awareness and Prevention Program. The program includes English and Spanish online self-paced and live versions of the training. Since November of 2020, the project has reached thousands of NJ workers and residents, many of them from high-risk, hard to reach low-income communities of color.

Carmen Martino, a Rutgers professor and director of OTEC, part of the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, was tasked with helping inform New Jersey workers of their rights during the coronavirus pandemic. OTEC, in partnership with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, New Labor and Wind of the Spirit—all members of the Protect NJ Workers Coalition—created the real-time Zoom version of the program to provide vital information to workers — mainly, their right to safe workplaces, and the reduction of virus-spreading conditions.

“The program plays a critical role in building organizational capacity, training workers and most importantly empowering workers and communities to protect themselves and reduce the exposures to COVID-19,” says Martino.

Subject matter experts Martino and long-time and recently retired colleague Michele Ochsner collaborated with Rutgers instructional designers on the Division of Continuing Studies Teaching and Learning with Technology team—including Karen Harris, Ruth Ronan, Channell Walker and Joe Yankus—to create open online learning modules that comprehensively instruct workers about their rights and how to protect themselves and their communities against exposure to COVID-19.

Their task was deemed so important that the state of New Jersey gave a $400,000 grant for implementation of the project.

Helping Workers Stay Safe

The development of the training program began last year. Workers and their respective organizations in the Garden State requested protection from dangerous, coronavirus-spreading work conditions. From there, they coalesced.

“Worker organizations including unions, worker centers and advocacy groups were demanding that the governor’s office write an executive order that gave workers the right to refuse unsafe work,” Martino said. “They developed into the Protect NJ Workers Coalition.”

Gov. Phil Murphy enacted an executive order that provided workers with a system for filing complaints and safety information to employees, including what they could expect from their employers.

“The governor signed an executive order that outlined what workers could expect from their employers,” Martino said. “It was based on CDC recommendations that outlined steps for employees to take to protect against the virus.”

However, getting this critical information out to all New Jersey workers was challenging. To address the problem, the State used money from the CARES Act to give OTEC its sizable grant.

“We developed the training program back in the fall, working with the coalition partners,” Martino said.

Harris explained that Martino’s “call to action” approach to instruction inspired the development of interactive question-based learning modules that serve to answer workers’ concerns and foster proactive behavior during challenging times. The content is delivered in Canvas, a learning platform at Rutgers that offers the capability to provide free and open access to anyone who wishes to find answers and guidance. 

“Early on, we decided it would be question-driven,” Harris said. “People come to this with misconceptions and questions about COVID-19, what their rights are, and what actions they can take to protect themselves, their co-workers and their communities.”

The goal is not to track learning in a linear fashion, but rather to offer visitors the ability to navigate to targeted questions that are salient and then provide or link to more information that addresses their situation.

However, a text-only learning program would not sufficiently engage learners, Harris worried, so the TLT team of instructional designers, including e-learning creative contributors, brainstormed scenarios and designed animations that visually communicate critical information through a story that is very real in day-to-day experience. Especially for workers whose literacy may be an obstacle to learning, these cartoons function as direct examples that illustrate how to exercise their rights.

“We wanted to show people how to file a complaint using the governor’s executive order. The character they developed is named Gabriel,” Martino said, highlighting an example. “He’s a warehouse worker. The idea of the animation was to give people the confidence to file a complaint with the state, and show them how to do so.”

Running on a tight schedule, the team managed to storyboard and develop the animations, enhancing both quality and reach.

Just because COVID-19 appears to be ebbing, doesn’t mean the program will end. The state was so pleased with the training program that they gave OTEC and the coalition more money to develop two new modules on vaccine information and mental health.

This is important, according to Martino, because many NJ citizens need to know about the vaccines and how to get them.

With a second round of funding, OTEC, TLT and the Protect NJ Workers Coalition are providing more training and encouraging people to get vaccinated and address mental health. Martino said. “A lot of communities in New Jersey feel isolated and are not sure how to proceed with vaccination.” 

This team will continue to work to develop training that offers answers to their questions and guidance that empowers workers to take action for positive change.

See videos on COVID-19 Training in the Workplace and COVID-19 Transmission Myth Busters.