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We are OPEN and PREPARED. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, our Firm is utilizing telephone consultations whenever possible. We are equipped with technology for working remotely, as necessary, and are committed to continuing to serve our clients through this difficult time. Please connect with us on Facebook for the latest employment-related information dealing with COVID-19.

COVID-19 RESOURCE CENTER FOR NJ EMPLOYEES

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes a national minimum wage and sets standards for overtime compensation. While New Jersey has set a higher minimum wage than the federal rate, the FLSA still plays a critical role in many New Jersey wage and hour disputes. It allows workers to file “collective actions,” which are similar in many ways to class actions. A petition for certiorari is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and asks the justices to address ambiguity in the FLSA’s provision on collective actions. The employer in the case filed the petition in August 2020, but both parties have asked the court to defer consideration of the petition while they engage in settlement negotiations. If they reach a settlement, the employer has indicated that it will withdraw the petition, meaning that the court will not hear the case.

The federal minimum wage has been at its current level, $7.25 per hour, since July 2010. See 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(C). The provisions regarding overtime have remained largely unchanged since Congress first enacted the statute in 1938. Employers must pay non-exempt employees at one-and-a-half times their regular rate for work time during a week that exceeds forty hours. Id. at § 207(a)(1).

Employers who violate the minimum wage or overtime provisions of the FLSA may be liable for the amount of unpaid wages, plus an equal amount as unliquidated damages. If, for example, an employer withholds $1,000 in overtime compensation from an employee, a court may order them to pay that employee $2,000 in damages. The FLSA allows an employee to file suit on their own behalf and for other “similarly situated” employees who have consented in writing to inclusion in the lawsuit. Id. at § 216(b). The statute does not define “similarly situated.”

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New Jersey employment laws protect whistleblowers who report alleged wrongdoing by their employers or who cooperate in investigations by providing evidence or testimony. Information provided by employees and others with knowledge of the inner workings of a business or organization is invaluable in helping law enforcement investigations of suspected unlawful activity. Many would-be whistleblowers hesitate to come forward, however, for fear of losing their jobs or facing other consequences in the workplace. Laws like New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who engage in certain protected activities. A lawsuit filed in late 2020 alleges that a New Jersey labor union retaliated against the plaintiffs for their support of a corruption investigation, along with other whistleblowing activities.

CEPA prohibits employers from taking “retaliatory action” against employees who engage in certain activities. The statute defines “retaliatory action” as an “adverse employment action taken against an employee,” including termination. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:19-2(e). Activities protected by CEPA include:
– Reporting, or threatening to report, activity that an employee reasonably believes is in violation of civil, administrative, or criminal law to a supervisor or government agency;
– Providing evidence or testimony to a government agency as part of an investigation of alleged unlawful activity; and
– Refusing to participate in an activity that the employee reasonably believes violates a civil or criminal statute or administrative rule, is otherwise fraudulent, or constitutes a threat to public safety or the environment. Id. at § 34:19-3.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits retaliation against employees who report or oppose unlawful acts by their employers. It also prohibits derivative retaliation against employees who have “aided or encouraged any other person” asserting their rights under the law. Id. at § 10:5-12(d).

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Employers in New Jersey have a legal obligation to provide a reasonably safe work environment for their employees, free of not only discrimination and harassment but also unsafe conditions that pose a risk of injury or death. Multiple laws at both the state and federal levels address employers’ liability for employees’ workplace injuries. Many injuries fall under the state’s workers’ compensation law, which limits workers’ access to the courts except in cases involving “intentional wrongs.” As we near the start of the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, the courts are receiving numerous lawsuits filed by New Jersey workers and their families seeking to hold employers liable for injuries and deaths caused by the novel coronavirus. A lawsuit filed last summer in Hudson County, for example, alleges wrongful death and other claims against the state’s public transit authority on behalf of an employee who died of COVID-19 last spring.

The New Jersey workers’ compensation law is, in essence, a compromise between employees and employers. Employers pay into an insurance fund, similar to the funds that support the state’s unemployment and disability compensation systems. An employee who suffers a work-related injury on the job is guaranteed compensation from this fund without having to prove that their employer was at fault. In exchange, the employee waives their right to pursue greater damages in court. The one exception to this waiver of litigation rights applies when the injuries are the result of “intentional wrong.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:15-8.

The workers’ compensation statute does not define the term “intentional wrong,” but various court decisions have offered some guidance. With regard to COVID-19, questions of legal liability are still largely hypothetical since New Jersey courts have yet to rule on any major disputes. Employers are sure to dispute whether COVID-19 constitutes a work-related injury, along with disputes over whether any intentional acts on their part caused an employee’s illness. Another factor, of course, could be efforts by some in the U.S. Congress to shield employers from liability for COVID-19 risks in the workplace.

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The coronavirus pandemic continues to hit New Jersey particularly hard, although some good news has appeared in the past few weeks. Two vaccines are gradually becoming available. Certain groups of people will receive the vaccine first, starting with healthcare workers. Eventually, the vaccine will become more widely available. This will raise a question that appears almost every flu season: Can New Jersey employers require their employees to get the COVID vaccine? The answer is, of course, complicated. Employees in some jobs are required by state law to get vaccinated against influenza. Most New Jersey workers are under no legal mandate regarding vaccines, but their employers may be able to require them. Much of this area of law remains unsettled. What little case law exists is based on flu vaccine refusals, so New Jersey’s courts have yet to apply it to COVID-19.

New Jersey Mandatory Vaccination Law

New Jersey has no statewide requirement for employees to receive vaccinations. Employees of any “general or special hospital, nursing home, or home health care agency” licensed by the state must receive an annual flu vaccine. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 26:2H-18.79. This law allows medical exemptions but no religious exemptions. Outside of healthcare, employers have discretion over whether to require vaccinations.

New Jersey Employment Discrimination Law

Two common objections to mandatory vaccines come from people who are unable to receive them for medical reasons and people who object to them on religious grounds.

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Coming to work while sick is always risky, but far too many workers in New Jersey and around the country often feel they have no other choice. They might need the income from a shift, or they might fear losing their job if they call in sick. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the risks that a sick employee poses to their co-workers, customers, and others are far greater. The New Jersey Legislature enacted a law earlier this year that protects employees from losing their jobs or facing other discriminatory actions if they request time off from work during the current public health emergency because they are or might be at risk of transmitting an infectious disease. The law took effect immediately upon its approval by the governor on March 20, 2020. In September, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (NJDOL) issued a final set of regulations implementing these employee protections.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of numerous factors. The extent to which the law protects employees and job applicants from discrimination based on health conditions is a matter of ongoing dispute, particularly with regard to an infectious disease like COVID-19. The NJLAD’s protected categories include “disability” and “genetic information,” but the definitions provided for these terms primarily deal with long-term conditions rather than acute infections. See N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 10:5-5(q), (oo); 10:5-12(a). The only infectious disease specifically mentioned in the text of the statute is HIV and AIDS.

The new law, A3848, does not limit its protection specifically to employees who may have contracted COVID-19. It is, however, limited to the current public health emergency. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed Executive Order (EO) 103 on March 9, 2020, at a time when there were about eleven known cases of COVID-19 in New Jersey. In just under nine months, that number has increased to over 350,000 in this state alone. The governor has extended the public health emergency nine times, most recently with EO 200 on November 22.

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New Jersey employment laws protect workers against many different types of misconduct by employers, from discrimination and harassment to withholding of earned regular and overtime wages. These laws generally only apply to “employees.” Employee misclassification occurs when an employer designates an employee as an independent contractor. While employees have legal remedies when this occurs, problems can arise with the precise meanings of terms. The definition of an “employee” varies from one state to another, and sometimes even from one statute to another. A 2015 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court established a clear definition of “employee” for the purpose of wage and hour claims under state law. The New Jersey Legislature enacted several laws that include this definition, and that impose penalties on employers that misclassify their employees. A new law that took effect in spring 2020 requires employers to post notices of employees’ rights regarding misclassification.

What Is Misclassification?

In its 2015 decision on employee misclassification, the New Jersey Supreme Court noted that the “express purpose” of wage and hour laws is to provide “greater income security for workers.” Employees are entitled to protections under state and federal law that may, in some cases, increase employers’ financial obligations. This could include overtime compensation, paid or unpaid leave, workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment insurance, and federally-protected benefits, to name but a few. Employers are also responsible for withholding employees’ federal income taxes and payroll taxes from their paychecks, and matching the amount of payroll taxes. Employers have few or none of these obligations for independent contractors.

The plaintiffs, according to the court, alleged that misclassification “creates significant societal costs” because of “billions of dollars in lost revenue to state and federal governments.” Several amici curiae stated that misclassification of employees “is now common in many industries,” and that this has had “a cumulative societal effect” in which workers have fewer protections and governments receive less revenue. The court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, and adopted a formal definition of “employee.”

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The COVID-19 pandemic has now entered its ninth month in the United States. After extensive lockdowns in March and April 2020, cities and states around the country struggled with finding ways to reopen their economies without risking public health. Many New Jersey employees had to adapt quickly to a home office environment. Workers deemed “essential” had to continue reporting to their jobs, often with added safety measures intended to inhibit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some of the new measures used by employers raise important questions about employee privacy rights in New Jersey.

New Jersey Workplace Privacy Laws

As a general rule, employees do not have an expectation of privacy when they are at work, on the clock, and using their employer’s property. Employers can, with some exceptions, access emails sent by employees using a company email address, or search employees’ desks and other areas in the workplace. Employees’ personal property, such as cell phones, purses, and wallets, are subject to greater legal protection.

New Jersey recognizes several common-law claims for privacy violations, including intrusion upon seclusion, which protects a person’s “private affairs or concerns.” With more workers doing their jobs remotely, often using videoconferencing technologies that allow employers to see into their homes, these concerns have become much more pressing.

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Both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) protect workers against discrimination on the basis of disability. The definition of “disability” has changed over the years to encompass a wide range of conditions. The public’s understanding of addiction has begun to take psychological factors into account. This has led to questions about whether addiction may qualify as a disability under the ADA or the NJLAD. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently reviewed the law surrounding disability discrimination as it relates to opioid use and addiction. If you feel you have been discriminated against for use of opioids, it would be prudent to discuss the matter with a New Jersey employment discrimination attorney to learn what rights you have under state and federal law.

What Do Federal and State Disability Discrimination Laws in New Jersey Say About Opioids?

Opioid addiction is a serious problem in New Jersey and throughout the U.S. The definitions of “disability” in both the ADA and the NJLAD leave open the possibility that some forms of addiction could be considered disabilities. See 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-5(q). The ADA makes a specific exception, however, for individuals who are “currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs.” 42 U.S.C. § 12114(a).

Opioids and Disability Discrimination

The EEOC’s guidance document delves into the language of the ADA and the regulations implementing the law. It notes that the document does not have “the force and effect of law,” but rather represents its own interpretation of the ADA. It divides the analysis into three questions, the answers to which could lead to a viable claim for disability discrimination.

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The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets a nationwide minimum wage and a standard for overtime compensation. While some states, including New Jersey, have enacted their own minimum wage laws, both federal and New Jersey overtime laws require employers to pay non-exempt workers at one-and-a-half times their regular rate of pay when they work more than forty hours in a week. This applies to workers who receive an hourly wage and those who are salaried, as long as they are not exempted by the FLSA. The Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the U.S. Department of Labor has developed rules for determining the regular rate of pay of salaried employees. In August 2020, it issued an opinion letter, designated FLSA2020-14, which answers questions about the “fluctuating workweek” (FWW) method of calculating overtime. Workers in a dispute with their employer about overtime rules would be wise to consult with a New Jersey employment lawyer as soon as possible.

The overtime provisions of the FLSA state that employers must pay overtime “at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which [an employee] is employed.” 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). These provisions do not apply to employees deemed “exempt” by the FLSA. This includes individuals “employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity,” certain employees in the fishing and agriculture industries, and others. Id. at § 213(a).

Calculating overtime pay is rather straightforward for workers who receive an hourly wage. If an employee receives $12 per hour for a forty-hour workweek, their overtime rate of pay would be $18 per hour. When a non-exempt employee receives a fixed salary, the WHD has developed different systems for those who work a fixed number of hours and those whose hours vary from one week to the next. An employee’s regular rate of pay is equal to their weekly salary divided by the number of hours they work, which is easy to do if they always work the same number of hours. See 29 C.F.R. § 778.113(a).

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The number of people working remotely — meaning away from their employer’s place of business — in New Jersey and around the country grew considerably after the pandemic began earlier this year. Many people continue to work remotely or virtually, while others have returned to something resembling their earlier workplace. It is probably too early to tell how the pandemic has changed, and will change, the workplace for people who are able to do their jobs at home. In August 2020, the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the U.S. Department of Labor issued a bulletin addressing questions about overtime laws and regulations. Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2020-5 (FAB 2020-5) advises employers on how to track remote employees’ time. It also offers useful guidance for remote non-exempt workers about what constitutes “work time” when they are not at an office or worksite.

Compensable Overtime

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to pay non-exempt employees at a higher rate for any work performed beyond forty hours in a week. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). The overtime rate of pay is one-and-a-half times an employee’s usual wage. If an employee makes $20 per hour, and works fifty hours in a week, they should receive $30 per hour for their ten hours of overtime. The FLSA allows employees to file suit for damages if an employer violates the overtime provisions.

Certain employees are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions. Workers in many exempted categories are unlikely to be able to do their jobs remotely, such as people employed in agriculture or fishing, amusement park employees, and seamen on foreign vessels. See id. at §§ 213(a)(3), (5), (6), (8). People who work “in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity,” however, might be able to telecommute, and are also exempt from overtime laws. Id. at § 213(a)(1).

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