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timerThe New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) protects workers in this state from a wide range of unlawful employment practices. In order to assert their rights and claim damages, individuals must follow procedures outlined in the LAD, as well as case law interpreting the statute. This includes a two-year statute of limitations for filing suit. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that an employment contract may not limit the protection offered by the LAD by reducing this time period from two years to six months. Rodriguez v. Raymours Furniture Co., No. A-27 Sept. Term 2014, 074603, slip op. (N.J., Jun. 15, 2016). The court held that any such restriction “defeats the public policy goal” of the LAD. Id. at 4.

The LAD prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of various protected categories, including race, sex, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and disability. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12. It also prohibits retaliation against an employee for asserting their rights, such as by making an internal complaint to a human resources official or an external complaint to state or federal officials.

An individual may file a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, or they may file suit in Superior Court against an employer for alleged violations of the LAD. The statute does not specify a time frame during which a complainant must file suit, but the state Supreme Court has determined that the applicable statute of limitations is two years. Montells v. Haynes, 627 A.2d 654, 133 N.J. 282 (1993).

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checkDigital technology has brought all sorts of conveniences into our lives, but these conveniences might come at a significant cost for some people. Our daily activities leave a trail of information behind, which is accessible to credit reporting agencies (CRAs). Employers often ask to conduct credit checks as part of the hiring process. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., offers some protection to job applicants by making this process reasonably transparent. An employer must provide job applicants with various disclosures, particularly if it decides not to hire an applicant because of information in their credit report. A proposed class action currently pending in New Jersey claims that a transportation network company (TNC), also known as a rideshare company, failed to provide disclosures required by the FCRA to prospective drivers. Cuccinello v. Uber, Inc., No. 2:15-cv-06604, am. complaint (D.N.J., Dec. 7, 2015). The complaint also alleges FCRA violations against a CRA.

A person’s credit report potentially includes their complete financial history for the previous seven years, if not longer, along with other information about their current life and history. This might include criminal convictions and arrests, marriages, divorces, and children. In order to protect people’s privacy, the FCRA places restrictions on the CRAs that collect consumer credit information and issue credit reports, as well as on individuals and businesses that request those reports.

An employer that wants to obtain a job applicant’s credit report must give the applicant “a clear and conspicuous disclosure,” stating that it intends to use the report “for employment purposes.” 15 U.S.C. § 1681b(b)(2)(A). The disclosure must be provided “in a document that consists solely of the disclosure.” Id. The job applicant must consent in writing to the issuance of a credit report for this purpose. CRAs are not permitted to issue a credit report unless the employer certifies that it has complied with these provisions. Id. at § 1681b(b)(1).

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sunriseThe Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., guarantees overtime pay for employees of covered employers for work performed in excess of 40 hours in a week, provided that they do not fall under one of the law’s exemptions. Regulations promulgated by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) set a minimum salary level, above which some employees are exempt from the overtime rule. The DOL issued a new regulation in May 2016 raising this level, giving more than four million workers nationwide access to overtime pay. 81 Fed. Reg. 32391 (May 23, 2016). The new rule will go into effect on December 1, 2016.

Workers are entitled to one and a half times their regular pay under the FLSA if they work over 40 hours in a week. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a). Employees who work “in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity,” however, are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime rules. Id. at § 213(a)(1). This applies to a wide range of workers, and the DOL’s regulations go into great detail about how the overtime exemption applies to executive, administrative, professional, computer, and outside sales employees. See 29 C.F.R. § 541.0 et seq.

Current DOL regulations only exempt executive, administrative, and professional employees from the overtime rules if their salary is at least $455 per week, also calculated as $910 biweekly, $985.83 semimonthly, or $1,971.66 per month. 29 C.F.R. § 541.600. Annually, this equals a salary of just under $23,660. The DOL set these levels in 2004, and that was reportedly its first revision of the salary levels since 1975. 69 Fed. Reg. 22122 (Apr. 23, 2004). The new rule is partly a response to concerns that the cost of living has exceeded the 2004 level.

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minimum wageSeveral bills currently pending in the New Jersey Legislature could make substantial changes to state laws dealing with employees’ rights in the workplace. Two bills address various forms of employment discrimination, and another two would raise the state’s minimum wage. Each bill was introduced in early 2016 and referred to a committee. Three bills are still awaiting committee hearings, while one of the minimum wage bills passed both chambers and is now waiting for the governor’s signature or veto. Whether any of these bills pass or not, they bring needed attention to issues that employees face throughout New Jersey.

Minimum Wage

The minimum wage in New Jersey is currently $8.38 per hour. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-56a4, N.J.A.C. § 12:56-3.1. A bill that would gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour has passed both houses of the Legislature. A15 would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour on January 1, 2017. On the first day of each subsequent year, the minimum wage would increase by the greater of either $1.25 per hour or $1.00 plus that year’s increase in the consumer price index.

The goal of the bill is for the minimum wage to reach or exceed $15 per hour by 2021. The bill was introduced in the New Jersey Assembly on February 8, 2016. The Assembly passed it on May 26, followed by the Senate on June 23. The governor has reportedly threatened to veto the bill but has not yet done so. He also has not signed it into law.

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lotteryThe Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., requires payment of a minimum wage. Violations of this provision can take many forms, including deductions from a person’s compensation that result in a total net pay below the minimum wage for the amount of work performed. Compensation is also not limited to wages, as demonstrated in a decision from late 2015 from the New York Court of Appeals. The court ruled that an individual who worked for the city in exchange for public benefits was an “employee” within the meaning of FLSA, allowing his claims for minimum wage violations to go forward. Matter of Carver v. State of New York, 26 N.Y.3d 272 (2015). The incident that gave rise to the lawsuit involved the seizure of the plaintiff’s lottery winnings by the state under a law allowing reimbursement for benefits paid out in the previous decade. The plaintiff alleged that this reduced his overall compensation to below minimum wage.

In order to prevail in a claim under FLSA, a plaintiff must establish that they have standing as an employee. FLSA’s definition of “employee” is simply “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1). The law defines “employer” to include public agencies. Not all employees, however, are entitled to protection under FLSA and other federal employment laws. Exemptions identified by FLSA include individuals “employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity”; certain types of agricultural and food industry workers; and various other jobs. Id. at § 213(a).

The plaintiff in Carver worked almost full-time for the City of New York for about seven years, in exchange for public assistance under a state program. Benefits included cash payments of $176 every two weeks and food stamps. About seven years after he left the work program, he won $10,000 in the lottery. He filed suit against the State of New York when it seized 50 percent of the winnings.

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cell phoneRidesharing companies like Uber are relative newcomers to the marketplace, but they have already had an enormous economic and legal impact. In numerous employment law claims, drivers are alleging that they are misclassified as independent contractors rather than employees. The last year has seen several important court decisions and settlements that offer good news for ridesharing drivers. Courts have ruled in plaintiffs’ favor in cases from California to Massachusetts, and putative class actions are currently pending in New Jersey and New York

Many of the lawsuits against Uber, generally considered the leading ridesharing company, assert claims under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., which governs minimum wage and overtime pay for many employers. Employees are entitled to payment of a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and non-exempt employees must be paid time-and-a-half for hours worked in excess of 40 per calendar week. Employers might violate the FLSA simply by failing to pay overtime, or they may do so less obviously, such as by imposing obligations on employees outside the time that they are “clocked in.” This can result in uncompensated overtime, or an hourly rate of pay that, when calculated for the amount of time actually worked, is less than minimum wage.

Drivers for Uber are challenging their status as independent contractors in lawsuits and administrative complaints around the country. A key distinction between an employee, who is entitled to the protection of statutes like FLSA, and an independent contractor is the degree of control the employer has over the person’s work. Just over one year ago, the California Labor Commissioner ruled that an Uber driver is an employee in Berwick v. Uber Technologies, Inc., No. 11-46739, order (Cal. Lab. Comm, Jun. 3, 2015).

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policeThe U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a New Jersey police officer who claimed that his employer violated his First Amendment rights. Heffernan v. City of Paterson, 578 U.S. ___ (2016). This case is particularly notable because the underlying action by the plaintiff’s employer was based on a mistake. The employer thought the plaintiff was engaging in a “constitutionally protected political activity,” Heffernan, slip op. at 1, by supporting a political candidate opposed by the police chief. The district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the plaintiff on the grounds that, since he was not actually engaging in constitutionally protected speech, his employer could not have deprived him of any constitutional right. The Supreme Court reversed this ruling based on a 1994 case, which held that an employer’s subjective belief is the controlling factor.

The First Amendment’s guarantee of “freedom of speech” means, in part, that the government cannot punish a person for the content of their speech. In an employment law context, this protects public employees like the plaintiff, a police officer. Government employers are generally prohibited from taking adverse action against an employee for acts that are protected by the Bill of Rights. This restriction does not necessarily apply to private employers, since the First Amendment only restrains government actions. Congress enacted a statute in the 19th century giving individuals the right to file suit against a government official for the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” while acting in an official capacity. 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The plaintiff in Heffernan was a 20-year veteran of the police department in Paterson, New Jersey. He was assigned to work in the police chief’s office in 2005, according to the court’s opinion. The mayor, who had appointed both the chief and the plaintiff’s direct supervisor, was running for reelection at the time. The plaintiff was reportedly “a good friend” of the mayor’s challenger. Heffernan, slip op. at 2.

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unions mapLaws in New Jersey and many other states protect workers’ right and ability to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining with employers. Some states, however, have passed laws aimed at significantly reducing workers’ ability to unionize, ironically named “right to work” laws. These laws prohibit requiring workers who choose not to join a union to pay any sort of fee to the union, even if they benefit from working conditions only made possible by union efforts. In a bit of good news, a Wisconsin court has ruled that its state’s “right to work” law constitutes a taking of union property by the government without just compensation, in violation of the state constitution. Int’l Assoc. Of Machinists Dist. 10, et al. v. State of Wisconsin, et al., No. 2015CV000628, order (Wis. Cir. Ct., Dane Co., Apr. 8, 2016).

Unions represent employees in collective bargaining negotiations with their employers. These types of negotiations, backed by strikes and other actions, helped make possible many of the features of employment taken for granted today. Workers who do not join a union generally still benefit from the union’s activities, so unions have, in the past, sought contractual terms with employers to address this imbalance. A “closed shop” refers to an employer that, under the terms of a union contract, may only hire union members. A “union shop” is an employer that must require all employees to join the union.

Federal law has banned closed-shop clauses in union-employer contracts. States can prohibit union-shop clauses, but federal law allows unions to require the payment of an “agency fee” by non-union workers. See Communications Workers of America v. Beck, 487 U.S. 735 (1988). “Right to work” laws prohibit union-shop clauses, particularly agency fees. The Wisconsin Legislature passed a “right to work” law in 2015. See WI Stat. §§ 111.04(3)(a)(4), 111.06(1)(c).

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clockA controversial proposed ordinance, Ordinance 16.081, in Jersey City, New Jersey would mandate a minimum workweek of 30 hours for certain employees engaged in “business services.” The ordinance’s stated purpose is “to prevent full-time building service jobs from being unnecessarily broken into part-time jobs.” Employers have rather wide discretion under state and federal laws to define “full-time” and “part-time” for their own employees. Federal law has recently begun to define “full-time” in certain contexts, however, allegedly resulting in employers cutting hours. The Jersey City ordinance has met with substantial opposition from business leaders, resulting in the postponement of a final vote in mid-May 2016.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., does not distinctly define “full-time” and “part-time” employment. A 40-hour workweek is traditionally considered “full-time,” at least in part because of overtime provisions in the FLSA and many state laws. These laws require payment of time-and-a-half to non-exempt workers for hours worked in excess of 40 hours. The principal regulation placed on employers with regard to full-time and part-time employment is consistency. If their employment policies define full-time and part-time employment, provide benefits for full-time or part-time employees, or provide certain rights to full- or -part-time employees, they must apply those policies consistently.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as “Obamacare,” defines “full-time” employment in the context of providing health insurance as an employment benefit. It states that a “large employer,” defined as one having 50 or more employees, must offer “the opportunity to enroll in minimum essential coverage under an eligible employer-sponsored plan” to all employees working at least 30 hours per week. 29 U.S.C. § 4980H. This has allegedly resulted in some employers reducing hours from 40 or more hours per week to 29 or fewer, in order to avoid the health insurance mandate. In the absence of any other means to deliver access to health care, Jersey City is attempting to prevent certain employers from cutting hours.

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A challenge to a state law mandating the payment of union fees by certain public employees met with an unusual, if not unexpected, end in March. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in January 2016 in Friedrichs v. Cal. Teachers Assoc., and observers at the time suggested that the court seemed to be leaning toward striking down the law in question. The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in February, however, left the court evenly divided, politically speaking. The court tied 4-4 and therefore had to allow the lower court ruling to stand. Friedrichs, 578 U.S. ___ (2016).

railway strikeThe plaintiffs alleged that a law requiring them to pay union fees even if they were not union members violated their First Amendment rights. This type of arrangement is often known as a “fair share provision,” since employees who are not union members still benefit from a union’s collective bargaining activities. Employers with fair share provisions are known as “agency shops.” When an employer enters into a contract with a union that requires all employees to join the union if they are not already members, and to remain members for the duration of their employment, this is known as a “union shop.”

Some states have enacted laws that prohibit union shops and agency shops. Supporters of these laws call them “right to work” laws, while critics often call them “right to work for less” laws. One argument in favor of requiring union membership or the payment of a fee is that it reduces the problem of “free riders,” an economic term referring to people who benefit from something, such as collective bargaining agreements, without paying for them.

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