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By Guest2625 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsThe term “wage theft” refers to a broad range of unlawful employment practices that deprive employees of wages they have earned. This might include under-reporting of hours worked, underpayment for reported hours, illegitimate paycheck withholdings, requiring employees to work extra hours without pay, or even outright theft of tips. Employment statutes at the federal and state levels, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., and the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law (NJWHL), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-56a et seq., require employers to pay a minimum wage, pay extra for overtime, and keep detailed payroll records. None of these protections, however, applies to independent contractors, who are defined as independent of any one employer but are also just as susceptible to wage theft. A bill pending in the New York City Council would remedy this situation for independent contractors, including thousands of people who identify as freelancers, within the city.

The FLSA requires employers to maintain payroll records for all exempt and non-exempt employees. These records must include personal information like name and address, and non-exempt employee records must identify hourly rates, days worked, and hours worked each day, amounts owed for regular and overtime hours, itemized amounts deducted from paychecks, and dates and amounts of all paychecks. 29 C.F.R. §§ 516.2, 516.3. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) enforces these regulations.

Payroll records assist regulators investigating alleged wage theft, as well as employees asserting claims for themselves. Employees can bring claims for underpayment or non-payment of wages under the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the FLSA and the NJWHL, and the WHD and New Jersey officials may also enforce these laws on workers’ behalf. In addition to civil liability for back wages and other damages, penalties under the FLSA include a fine of up to $10,000 and, for repeat offenders, imprisonment for up to six months. 29 U.S.C. §§ 215(a)(2), 216(a).

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OvertimeA New Jersey federal judge approved a settlement in a lawsuit brought by Essex County corrections officers, alleging underpayment of overtime. Davis, et al. v. Essex County, No. 2:14-cv-01122, opinion (D.N.J., Dec. 1, 2015). The plaintiffs asserted causes of action under both the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq.; and the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law (NJWHL), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-56a et seq. They brought suit on behalf of themselves and other employees with similar claims, as allowed by the FLSA. The parties eventually came to an agreement regarding unpaid wages, liquidated damages, costs, and attorney’s fees. The court reviewed the settlement to ensure that it satisfied the FLSA’s requirements regarding collective actions. It certified a class of plaintiffs and approved a settlement totaling $300,000.

Both the FLSA and the NJWHL require employers to pay overtime compensation to certain employees. This generally applies to hourly workers who do not hold a managerial or executive position. An employer must pay a rate of time-and-a-half for any time worked more than 40 hours during a calendar week. See 29 U.S.C. § 207, N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-56a4. A common example of an overtime claim involves an employer who requires employees to perform certain tasks while they are “off the clock,” such as changing into or out of uniform. Since this task is mandatory, it is legally considered part of the employee’s job. If it pushes the amount of time spent at work over 40 hours in a week, the employee is entitled to overtime pay.

An employee can collect unpaid overtime, court costs, and other damages under the FLSA and the NJWHL. Individual employees may not have a large enough claim for a lawsuit to be feasible, which is where a type of lawsuit known as a collective action comes into play. Much as in a class action, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 23, one or more plaintiffs can sue on behalf of a class of individuals who are in similar situations and have similar legal claims. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). An employee who might be owed thousands of dollars in overtime pay is more likely to get the employer’s attention if the lawsuit includes hundreds or thousands of their co-workers. Plaintiffs must consent to be part of a collective action under the FLSA, while many class actions require class members to “opt out.”

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Tumisu [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayThe New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-1 et seq., protects employees against multiple forms of discrimination by employers. It is one of the most expansive anti-discrimination laws in the country. The New Jersey Supreme Court heard oral arguments in early December 2015 in a case, Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, alleging discrimination based on marital status. The plaintiff specifically claims that the defendant fired him because he was getting divorced. The case involves the question of whether the plaintiff has established sufficient grounds for a claim under the NJLAD, and also whether divorce is included in the NJLAD’s protected category of “marital status.”

An employer may not discriminate against an employee, according to the NJLAD, on the basis of “marital status, civil union status, [or] domestic partnership status.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). This applies to hiring, firing, and other decisions related to a person’s employment. The statute does not define “marital status,” so one could argue that the scope of protection is limited to situations in which an employer prefers an unmarried employee to a married one, or vice versa. It may not be clear, from that standpoint, whether an ongoing divorce falls under the statute’s concept of “marital status.” This is the central issue now presented in the Smith case. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit, but the appellate court partly reinstated it. Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, No. A-1717-12T3, slip op. (N.J. App., Jun. 27, 2014).

The plaintiff in Smith worked for the defendant for about 17 years, starting as an emergency medical technician (EMT) and eventually rising to the position of director of operations. His wife was a volunteer for the defendant, and they met through work. She generally worked in a subordinate position to him. After eight years of marriage, they separated in early 2006. The plaintiff had reportedly had an affair with another employee, who voluntarily resigned around the same time. The defendant learned about both the affair and the divorce at some point during this time period.

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By Metal_whistle.jpg: Markus Schweiss derivative work: MichaelFrey (Metal_whistle.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsA jury in a New Jersey superior court awarded $7.7 million in damages to a former prison official in her lawsuit alleging retaliation for cooperating with a federal extortion investigation. Easley v. N.J. Dept. of Corrections, et al., No. L-000094-13, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Burlington Co., Jan. 10, 2013). A Department of Corrections deputy commissioner went to prison as a result of the investigation, and the plaintiff alleged that she was terminated by the department in retaliation. The lawsuit asserted claims under state whistleblower protection law, including the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:19-1 et seq. The judgment includes both compensatory and punitive damages.

Common-law whistleblower protections in New Jersey are based on an employer’s duty “not to discharge an employee who refused to perform an act that is a violation of a clear mandate of public policy.” Pierce v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 84 N.J. 58, 72 (1980). After the New Jersey Legislature enacted the CEPA, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that its protections apply to a wide range of individuals defined as “employees.” D’Annunzio v. Prudential Ins. Co., 192 N.J. 110 (2007). The court has continued to affirm that the statute has broad applicability. See Lippman v. Ethicon, ___ N.J. ___, Nos. A-65/66-13, 073324, slip op. (Jul. 15, 2015).

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ClkerFreeVectorImages [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayA putative class action is alleging that an internet retailer conducts background checks of job applicants in violation of federal consumer protection law. Information about individuals’ credit history has become critically important for a wide range of purposes. Background checks for criminal history have long been common in the hiring process, but background checks for credit history have also become widespread. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., governs access to, use of, and disclosure of consumer credit information for various purposes, including employment. The lawsuit claims that the defendant failed to follow the FCRA’s procedures for use of background information in the hiring process. Feldstein v. Amazon.com LLC, et al., No. 3:15-cv-07322, complaint (D.N.J., Oct. 5, 2015).

The FCRA governs activities by both credit reporting agencies (CRAs), which collect consumer credit information and package it in reports, and individuals and companies that obtain these reports and use them to evaluate individual consumers for various purposes. The FCRA defines a “consumer report” as information collected by a CRA about credit history and various personal details, including criminal history, intended for use in decisions about matters like credit, insurance, or employment. 15 U.S.C. § 1681a(d).

Prior to requesting a report from a CRA, an employer must provide “a clear and conspicuous disclosure…in writing to the” job applicant that they intend to obtain a consumer report, and they must obtain the applicant’s authorization. 15 U.S.C. § 1681b(b)(2). If the employer makes an adverse hiring decision based on information in a consumer report, the FCRA requires it to notify the applicant in advance and provide a copy of the report and a written statement of the applicant’s right to dispute its contents. 15 U.S.C. §§ 1681b(b)(3), 1681g(c).

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By Pumpman2 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsEmployment discrimination against a person based on pregnancy, medical conditions associated with pregnancy, or recent childbirth is prohibited under state and federal law. The question of whether employers are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, or workers who have recently given birth, however, remains unsettled in many jurisdictions. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to allow workers who are breastfeeding their newborns to express breast milk at work, a process that requires a sanitary and private environment. This federal statute does not apply to smaller employers, however, and New Jersey has no statute specifically addressing the issue. The termination of a woman from her job earlier this year, allegedly based on her request for additional breaks during the work day to express milk, has brought renewed attention to this issue.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5). Pregnancy is not, by itself, considered a disability under the ADA, but the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978 prohibits employers from treating a pregnant employee differently from an employee with a comparable temporary disability. A prohibition on discrimination is different, however, from an obligation to accommodate an employee’s condition. The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008 expanded the definition of “disability” to include many conditions commonly associated with pregnancy, to the extent that they “substantially limit[] a major life activity.” 29 C.F.R. Appendix to § 1630.2(h).

Denying an employee the opportunity to express breast milk while at work does not constitute pregnancy discrimination under the PDA, nor is it a disability for which an employer must make an accommodation under the ADAAA. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 offers some protection. It amended the FLSA to require employers to allow “reasonable break time” for breast milk pumping for up to one year after the child’s birth, and to provide employees with a private location “other than a bathroom” to do so. 29 U.S.C. § 207(r)(1).

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Magirly [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)], via OpenclipartA lawsuit filed earlier this year by a former hospital security supervisor alleges sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. Russo v. Robert Wood Johnson Health Sys., No. L-003497-15, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Middlesex Co., Jun. 16, 2015). New Jersey law specifically prohibits pregnancy discrimination, while federal law considers it a form of sex discrimination. Both federal and New Jersey law consider sexual harassment to be a type of unlawful sex discrimination, to the extent that it either directly affects the conditions of employment or creates a hostile work environment.

The plaintiff worked for the defendant hospital from 2008 until June 2015. Her most recent position was as security supervisor. She alleges that her supervisor subjected her to various forms of sexual harassment, including “sexually explicit text messages and emails,” for a period of about two years. The supervisor’s behavior towards her changed, she claims, when he learned that she was pregnant in June 2013. Instead of sexually explicit remarks, he allegedly began making “disparaging and unwarranted comments about her work performance.” The plaintiff specifically states that she had requested a promotion and raise in spring 2013, after she had taken on additional job duties with her supervisor’s alleged approval. She claims that the supervisor never followed up on her request after learning of her pregnancy.

This sort of conduct continued, the plaintiff claims, throughout her pregnancy. Before she went on maternity leave in January 2014, the supervisor allegedly told her that taking leave would put her job in jeopardy. She returned to work in July 2014, and claims that her supervisor and others began harassing her with regard to issues like breastfeeding. She states that she was initially allowed to use her private office to pump breast milk, but the hospital’s human resources (HR) director eventually told her that she had to use a lactation room in a different building. Because of its location, the plaintiff claims that the time needed to walk there from her office and back would not give her enough time to complete her job duties.

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The field of employment law extends beyond claims under statutes like the Fair Labor Standards Act or the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law. Employment law includes almost any legal issue involving an employer-employee relationship or almost any similar relationship. A pair of lawsuits between a pop singer and her producer demonstrate how “employment law” can encompass a wide range of issues. No express employer-employee relationship exists in the cases, but the singer’s lawsuit alleges that the producer has made it essentially impossible for her to work. The producer responded by filing his own lawsuit, alleging breach of contract and other claims.Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 11.21.35 AM

The singer, who uses the stage name “Kesha” and previously used the name “Ke$ha,” has built a rather extensive body of work as a singer, songwriter, and performer. She released her first full-length album in 2010, but her career has been less active in recent years. She attributes that apparent slowdown in her career to a conflict with her producer, who does business under the name “Dr. Luke.”

In her complaint, Kesha states that she first signed a contract with Dr. Luke in 2005, when she was 18 years old. She alleges that he “has sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused” her for the past decade, “to the point where [she] nearly lost her life.” Sebert v. Gottwald, et al., 1st am. complaint at 2 (Cal. Super. Ct., L.A. Co., Jun. 8, 2015). The allegations include “sexual advances” and “forc[ing her] to take drugs and alcohol in order to take advantage of her sexually while she was intoxicated.” Id. at 7. The “abuse and control” allegedly continued after she got her “big break” in 2010. Id. at 8. She also alleges numerous acts by the producer that have hindered her career in recent years, such as by preventing her from releasing albums or touring.

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The relationship between an employer and an employee is not nearly as simple as an exchange of labor for wages. It involves a complicated set of interests that frequently come into conflict with one another. Employees often gain valuable skills and information during the course of their employment with a particular business, and any business has an interest in preventing competition. Some employers require their employees to sign an agreement restricting their ability to work for a competitor during or after their term of employment. This could be a separate agreement or a clause in an employment contract. While this sort of agreement clearly benefits an employer, employees need to be able to earn a living in their field. New Jersey courts strictly limit the enforceability of non-competition agreements, sometimes called “non-competes.”runners-305624_640

Known as a “restrictive covenant” in formal legal terms, a typical non-compete states that an employee may not accept employment from any competitor of the employer, typically within a defined geographic area and for a defined period of time. Employers may be able to obtain injunctive relief and monetary damages against a former employee who violates a non-compete. While non-competes have long appeared in employment contracts for jobs that involve high levels of education, training, or experience, they are reportedly becoming more common in a much wider range of jobs—including sandwich makers and summer camp counselors. As non-competes have become more common, so has litigation challenging their enforceability.

As of the summer of 2015, only four states have enacted statutes banning or severely limiting non-competes. See Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 16600; Haw. Rev. Stat. § 480-4(d) (as amended by H.B. 1090, eff. Jul. 1, 2015); N.D. Cent. Code § 9-08-06; 15 Okla. Stat § 15-219A. New Jersey has no statute dealing with the issue, but New Jersey courts have established a set of criteria for determining whether a non-compete is enforceable. Courts will only enforce a non-compete if, first and foremost, it limits the ban on competition to a reasonable geographic area for a reasonable time period. Community Hosp. Group, Inc. v. More, 869 A.2d 884 (N.J. 2005); Solari Industry v. Malady, 264 A.2d 53, 56 (N.J. 1970); Whitmyer Bros., Inc. v. Doyle, 274 A.2d 577 (1971).

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By Jürg Vollmer / maiak.info Reusse (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsThe digital newsroom at the cable and satellite news network Al Jazeera America (AJAM) voted on whether to unionize in late September 2015. A tally of the votes in early October showed that the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing, with 32 people voting in favor and five voting against. The journalists will become members of the News Guild of New York (NGNY), which has represented print journalists since the 1930s and has recently begun a major effort to support digital journalists who want to organize. Digital journalists at web publications like Salon, Gawker, and Vice have also recently voted to unionize. AJAM opposed the journalists’ unionization vote and has announced its intention to dispute the eligibility of some who participated in the vote.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., protects the right of employees to organize in order to engage in collective bargaining with the management of their employers. See 29 U.S.C. § 157. The law applies to most employers in the country, defining “employer” as almost any person or organization that employs people, except for the U.S. government, state and local governments, Federal Reserve Banks, and businesses subject to the Railway Labor Act (45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq.). 29 U.S.C. § 152(2). Labor unions, when they act as employers, are also subject to the NLRA. The law created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce its provisions.

AJAM, which is headquartered in Manhattan, launched in 2013 as a competitor to cable news networks like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. On September 3, 2015, a majority of employees in the network’s digital newsroom asked the company to voluntarily recognize the NGNY as their representative for collective bargaining purposes. Employees described “a troubling lack of transparency, inconsistent management, and lack of clear redress” from their employer. After several weeks, the company reportedly declined to grant the requested recognition to the union, which led to the employees’ vote.

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