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Labor organizing has helped workers in New Jersey and around the country achieve better pay and improved working conditions for over a century. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 protects workers’ right to engage in activities related to organizing and collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is charged with certifying labor unions and adjudicating disputes under the NLRA. A decision issued in March 2021 by the NLRB could be of note for those involved in New Jersey employment law matters. The board decided to retain the “contract bar rule,” which limits the time for filing any petition that challenges a union’s status while a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is in force.

Section 7 of the NLRA protects the rights of workers to “self-organization” and other labor organizing activities. Section 9(a) states that, once a majority of employees in a particular “unit,” have selected representatives for collective bargaining, they are the “exclusive representatives” for the employees in that unit. A union can lose its status as representative through a decertification petition filed with the NLRB. If at least thirty percent of the employees in a unit sign on to a petition to decertify the union, § 9(e) directs the NLRB to conduct a secret-ballot election of all employees to see if they favor decertification.

The contract-bar rule states that a petition to decertify a union cannot be filed during the first three years of a CBA, with two exceptions. First, a petition can be filed at any time if the CBA has a “union security clause” that “clearly” violates § 8(a)(3) of the NLRA. A CBA cannot require all of the employees in a unit to pay union dues unless it gives each employee a thirty-day grace period after their employment begins. A CBA that does not include the thirty-day period could be found invalid.
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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of sex and other factors. Compared to New Jersey employment discrimination law (the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination), Title VII’s list of protected categories seems short. Federal court decisions have expanded the scope of the statute beyond the narrowest literal meaning of its words, to include categories or actions mentioned more specifically in other laws. Most recently, a 2020 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court held that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In June 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance clarifying its interpretation of Title VII in light of the court’s ruling.

Federal law does not provide a specific definition of “sex” in the context of employment discrimination. The Supreme Court has built on the statute’s rather sparse language in several important rulings. In 1986, for example, the court ruled in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. That case involved sexual harassment of a female employee by a male supervisor. The court ruled in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services in 1998 that sexual harassment of a man by male employees may also violate Title VII.

The Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins expanded the understanding of sex discrimination by holding that Title VII bars discrimination on the basis of “sex stereotyping.” The plaintiff in that case claimed that the defendant discriminated against her because she did not conform to expectations of how she should dress and behave as a woman. This decision did not lead directly to last summer’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, but it set an important precedent.
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New Jersey employment discrimination law prohibits sexual harassment in almost every workplace in the state, but it still remains a serious problem. Lawmakers in Trenton introduced a bill at the beginning of 2021 that sought to address sexual harassment in political campaigns. After several revisions and amendments, the New Jersey Senate passed the bill in June 2021. A companion bill, introduced in the Assembly in February 2021, is still awaiting a committee hearing.

Sexual harassment is viewed under state and federal law as a form of unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex. Court decisions interpreting statutes like the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have identified two broad categories of actionable sexual harassment:
– “Quid pro quo sexual harassment” occurs when a person must submit to some sort of sexual demand as a condition of employment, such as a manager who hands out favorable shift assignments or other perks to employees who agree to sexual activity.
– “Hostile work environment” involves unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace, which is pervasive or severe enough that a reasonable person would find it to be hostile and incompatible with a safe workplace.

Both statutes also prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who oppose or report unlawful practices. While these laws protect a wide range of workers, sexual harassment in the political realm can be complicated. Title VII excludes the federal government itself from liability for discrimination and harassment, but other statutes allow claims against government employees, and even elected officials. See, e.g. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b)(1), 2 U.S.C. § 1311. The NJLAD, on the other hand, includes “the State…and all public officers” in its definition of “employer.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10-5:5(e).
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Employment discrimination or harassment claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination usually involve actions by specific employees, supervisors, managers, or executives. In order to make a successful New Jersey employment discrimination claim, a plaintiff must establish that the employer is legally responsible for the actions of that person or those people. This is known as “vicarious liability.” The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled in favor of a plaintiff in her hostile work environment lawsuit, reversing the trial court’s summary judgment for the defendant. The appellate court held that the plaintiff had raised a question as to whether her alleged harasser had acted within his authority as a supervisor when he told the plaintiff to “leave and don’t come back.”

Hostile work environment is a type of sexual harassment that occurs when one or more people engage in unwelcome sexual conduct to the point that a reasonable person would consider it to render the workplace hostile. An employer can be held vicariously liable for a hostile work environment perpetrated by any employee, even if they do not have authority over the plaintiff, as long as the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to act.

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2015 that defined a rule for determining whether vicarious liability should apply to an employer in sexual harassment and similar claims, when the alleged harasser was in a position of authority over the plaintiff. It based this rule on the Ellerth/Faragher analysis, named after two Supreme Court rulings from 1998, Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth and Faragher v. Boca Raton. The Ellerth/Faragher analysis states that a defendant can avoid vicarious liability if it can establish three elements:
1. It “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior”;
2. The plaintiff “unreasonably failed to take advantage of” the remedies offered by the employer; and
3. The plaintiff was not subject to any “tangible employment action” by the alleged harasser.
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People looking for jobs in New Jersey have the protection of federal and state employment laws addressing issues like wages, overtime compensation, and workplaces that are free of discrimination and harassment. To protect job applicants’ privacy rights, New Jersey law limits how employers can conduct background checks on prospective hires, and on how they can use information obtained from an applicant’s credit or criminal history. The following is the conclusion of our two-part series about New Jersey laws that protect job applicants’ rights.

Use of Credit History in Hiring

At the federal level, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) regulates consumer reporting agencies (CRAs), which are companies that compile information about consumers, and package that information in report form in exchange for a fee. The reports, known as consumer reports or credit reports, often include sensitive personal information that most people would rather remain private. The FCRA restricts the use of credit reports to a small number of situations, including employment.

New Jersey law largely mirrors the language of the FCRA. Under both laws, an employer needs a job applicant’s written consent in order to obtain a credit report. New Jersey goes a step further than the FCRA, however, by requiring employers to give job applicants a written disclosure stating that credit reports “commonly include[] information regarding the [applicant]’s character, general reputation, personal characteristics, and mode of living.” The employer must provide the applicant with a copy of the report upon request.
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The Resnick Law Group achieved a major victory for one of our clients earlier this month, when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that she did not have to show an “adverse employment action” in order to bring a claim under New Jersey disability discrimination law. The plaintiff alleged that her employer failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for her, and that this resulted in life altering injuries to her. The court also ruled that the claim was not barred by the state’s workers’ compensation law.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) protects workers against discrimination on the basis of disability. It defines this term very broadly to include illnesses that are “demonstrable…by accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.” The text of the NJLAD itself does not specifically require employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, but the New Jersey Administrative Code requires accommodations as long as they do not present an “undue hardship” for the employer. Failure to provide an accommodation is an “unlawful employment practice” under the NJLAD.

One question before the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether a plaintiff has to show an adverse employment action in order to make a claim for failure to accommodate a disability. An “adverse employment action” has typically been defined as a termination, suspension, or demotion. For the first time however, the high court decided that employees that suffer from a disability and do not necessarily fall into the above categories are also entitled to relief, and determined that an “adverse employment action” is not required to be shown in a reasonable accommodation case.
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New Jersey’s employment laws protect workers from a wide range of concerns. They guarantee payment of a minimum wage and compensation for overtime work. They prohibit discrimination on the basis of factors like race, religion, gender, disability, military service, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more. They require reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees and employees who are nursing newborns. These protections apply to job applicants as well as employees, with the goal of ensuring a fair hiring process with opportunities for as many people as possible. Enforcing these rights may require the assistance of an employment lawyer with experience in New Jersey’s legal system. The following is the first installment in an overview of New Jersey laws protecting job seekers, to help you understand your rights.

Employment Discrimination

Employers may not subject employees or job applicants to discriminatory treatment based solely or primarily on certain factors or characteristics. This includes refusing to hire someone because they are part of a protected group. For a job applicant turned down for a job, it can be difficult to prove what motivated an employer’s decision. An employment discrimination lawyer can help build a case under state law.

Protected Categories

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of the following factors:
– Race;
– Religion;
– Gender;
– Age;
– Disability;
– Pregnancy or breastfeeding;
– Marital, civil union, or domestic partnership status;
– Sexual orientation;
– Gender identity and gender expression;
– Military service obligations;
– Nationality or national origin; and
– Genetic information, including refusal to take a genetic test.
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As the COVID-19 pandemic shows signs of winding down, and New Jersey lifts many of the restrictions that have been in place for over a year, employers across the state report that they cannot find enough workers for their businesses. Some employers, rather predictably, blame expanded unemployment benefits. That might be one possible explanation, but it alone does not explain the reported worker shortage. Many of the industries reporting problems finding enough employees, to be blunt, do not have the best track records when it comes to fair wages, workplace safety, and other things that workers should be able to expect from their employers. Federal and New Jersey employment laws guarantee various protections for workers, and the fact that people are not hurrying to return to certain workplaces might serve as a reminder that maintaining these legal protections is an ongoing struggle.

Workers’ Rights Under Federal and New Jersey Law

Statutes at the state and federal level guarantee many New Jersey workers a minimum wage. They also protect workers’ right to a workplace free of discrimination, harassment, and unreasonable danger.

Minimum Wage

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) has set the federal minimum wage at $7.25 per hour since 2010. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(C). For tipped employees, which include many restaurant workers, employers must pay a base wage of $2.13 per hour. Id. at § 203(m)(2), 29 C.F.R. § 531.59.
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Federal law protects workers’ right to organize for the purpose of negotiating with their employers, such as by joining or forming a labor union. Some employers look for creative ways to discourage their employees from organizing. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits employers from interfering with activity related to labor organizing, but it often provides leeway allowing employers to discourage workers without quite reaching the level of unlawful coercion. New Jersey employment law is generally favorable to unions, but employers in this state can still take advantage of gaps in the NLRA’s protections. A bill currently pending in the U.S. Congress, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2021, would amend the NLRA to include far greater protections for workers. The House of Representatives passed it in March 2021, and it awaits action by the Senate.

Section 7 of the NLRA, codified at 29 U.S.C. § 157, states that employees have the right to organize themselves in order to bargain collectively with their employers. They may do this by joining an existing labor union, or they can form a union of their own. The law also protects workers’ right to engage in “concerted activities” related to labor organizing. Courts have taken a broad view of what counts as protected concerted activity.

The NLRA’s restrictions on employer actions are found in § 8(a) of the law, or 29 U.S.C. § 158(a). Employers may not “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees” who are exercising their rights under § 7. They also may not discriminate or retaliate against employees because of their protected activities.
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The minimum wage is the lowest amount that an employer can pay to an employee under federal and state law in New Jersey, provided that employee is not exempted from laws governing wages and hours of work. The New Jersey Legislature has established a minimum wage for the state that is greater than the federal rate. Employee advocates have sought amendments to federal law that would raise the minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour. These efforts have not been successful, but there is good news for some workers in New Jersey. The White House issued an executive order (EO) that will raise the minimum wage for federal government contractors to $15 per hour. The EO will take effect in early 2022. If you are concerned that your employer is not paying you the minimum wage, reach out to a New Jersey employment attorney to learn more about your rights.

Federal Minimum Wage

Congress first established a nationwide minimum wage in June 1938, when it passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The first minimum wage was $0.25 per hour. Congress has amended the FLSA multiple times to raise the minimum wage. The last time this happened was the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007, which raised the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour by 2010. See 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(C).

Based solely on inflation, the original minimum wage of $0.25 per hour would equal about $4.73 today. The overall cost of living has increased more than that, though, and critics of the federal minimum wage argue that $7.25 per hour is not enough to support most individuals, let alone families.
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