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COVID-19 RESOURCE CENTER FOR NJ EMPLOYEES

Government regulators enforce a wide variety of laws, from statutes prohibiting employment discrimination to those that deal with securities fraud and other fraudulent activities. They rely on information provided by business insiders, but many employees might hesitate to report potential legal violations by their employers for fear of losing their jobs. New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) is one of many whistleblower protection statutes that prohibit retaliation by employers against employees who report their concerns. Proving that an adverse employment action constituted unlawful retaliation can be tricky, and different statutes have different requirements. A federal appellate court recently ruled on a whistleblower claim under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). It found that this statute has a more difficult standard of proof than CEPA. If you fear retaliation or discrimination for reporting legal violations in the workplace, reach out to a New Jersey employment lawyer to review your options.

CEPA provides rather broad protection for whistleblowers in New Jersey. It applies to employees who:
– Report alleged violations of a statute or regulation, either internally or to a regulatory agency;
– Provide information or testimony as part of an ongoing investigation into a possible violation of the law; or
– Object to or decline to participate in an activity that they reasonably believe would violate the law or go against public policy.
The statute’s definition of a “retaliatory action” includes termination, suspension, demotion, and other adverse actions.

An employee claiming unlawful retaliation under CEPA must show a causal connection between their whistleblowing activities and the adverse action against them. New Jersey court rulings have held that a plaintiff can establish this element by producing enough evidence to allow a judge or jury “to infer that discrimination was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause” of the employer’s adverse action. The recent appellate court decision regarding SOX found a much stricter burden of proof for plaintiffs.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous employment law challenges. Employers, employees, government regulators, and others have had to balance financial needs, public health, and workplace safety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued various guidelines related to testing and isolation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has addressed questions about what employers may require of their employees under laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These agencies have modified their guidelines as our knowledge about the coronavirus has increased, and as pandemic conditions have changed. Recent updates present relaxed standards for workplace safety, mandatory COVID testing, and other matters. New Jersey employees should be aware of their rights under both federal and state laws. If you have questions about COVID-19 guidelines at your workplace, please contact a New Jersey employment lawyer to discuss.

EEOC guidance on testing

On July 12, 2022, the EEOC updated the guidance document entitled “​​What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.” One of the main issues the document addresses is whether the ADA allows employers to require COVID-19 testing among employees. Generally speaking, the ADA requires any medical examinations or inquiries by employers to be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” A medical condition that presents a “direct threat” to others in the workplace usually meets this requirement.

In the early days of the pandemic — particularly before a vaccine became widely available — the EEOC concluded that mandatory testing was acceptable because of the broad risk posed by exposure to the coronavirus. Much has changed since 2020. The agency has modified its interpretation of “business necessity” in light of improved public health measures, while also considering the ongoing mutation of the virus.
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Federal labor law protects workers’ rights to organize themselves in order to engage in collective bargaining and advocate for their interests. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) identifies these rights and prohibits employers from interfering with employees who are engaged in protected activities. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) adjudicates allegations of unlawful actions by employers and labor unions. Recently, a panel of the NLRB in New Jersey ruled in a case that alleged numerous NLRA violations by an employer, including refusing to negotiate with its employees’ authorized representative and firing multiple employees because of their union activities. An administrative law judge (ALJ) found that the employer violated multiple provisions of the NLRA. The NLRB panel affirmed the ruling, with some modifications. If you are involved in a labor dispute, contact a New Jersey employment lawyer today to learn more about your rights.

Workers have the right to “self-organization” under the NLRA. They may engage in activities directed towards organizing themselves to join or form a union, along with other activities related to “collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Section 8(a) of the statute identifies prohibited “unfair labor practices by employer[s].” These include interfering with protected activities by employees, discriminating on the basis of union membership or organizing activities, and refusing to participate in collective bargaining with authorized union representatives. Workers may report alleged violations to the NLRB.

The employer in the recent NLRB decision operates a hotel in North Bergen, New Jersey. According to the ALJ’s opinion, it entered into a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with its employees’ union in 2011. The CBA expired in 2015, but the employer and the union had not been able to agree to a new CBA. As of the date of the ALJ’s ruling in late 2021, the 2011 CBA remained the most recent agreement between the two.
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New Jersey’s employment laws offer a wide range of protections for workers, including the right to paid or unpaid family leave in certain circumstances, and the right to recover remedies from employers who engage in unlawful discrimination or retaliation. In order for workers to benefit from these laws, they need to know about their rights. New Jersey employment attorneys can provide employees with everything they need to know about their legal rights, but the state wants people to know before anyone feels the need to contact a lawyer. The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (DCR) recently adopted new regulations that require employers to provide their employees with a poster advising them of their rights under two state statutes, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and the Family Leave Act (FLA).

The NJLAD is one of the most comprehensive anti-discrimination statutes in the country. It prohibits discrimination in hiring, firing, promotions, job duties, benefits, and other features of employment on the basis of a long list of factors. Protected categories include race, religion, age, disability, national origin, sex, sexual or affectional orientation, gender identity or gender expression, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and military service, to name a few. The statute requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for certain conditions, including many types of disability, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. It also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who object to allegedly unlawful practices or report their concerns.

New Jersey is also one of only a few U.S. states to provide paid family leave for some employees. The FLA provides up to twelve weeks of protected leave during a 24-month period to care for a sick or injured family member or to bond with a newborn or newly-adopted child. The leave may be unpaid or partially paid. The employee may take twelve weeks of leave all at once, or they may break it up over time. Employees may be eligible for leave if their employers employ at least thirty people worldwide. An employee must have worked for the employer for at least a year, and they must have worked at least 1,000 hours in the preceding twelve-month period.
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Both federal and state employment laws in New Jersey protect employees’ rights to a minimum wage and overtime pay. While the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not set the minimum wage as high as New Jersey law, it provides workers with useful enforcement tools. A worker can bring a “collective action” on behalf of other workers with similar federal wage and hour claims. An FLSA collective action is similar to a federal class action, with a few important differences. A recent decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals limits the use of FLSA collective actions when the plaintiffs come from more than one state. The ruling should not affect collective actions in which all members of the group are from New Jersey. If you have concerns about possible wage or overtime pay violations, make an appointment with a New Jersey employment lawyer today.

The most recent increase in the federal minimum wage occurred over twelve years ago. It reached its current level of $7.25 per hour on July 24, 2010. The rules for overtime compensation, which require payment at time-and-a-half for time worked over forty hours in a week, have remained the same for decades. These rules only apply to employees who are not exempt under the FLSA. They also do not apply to independent contractors. A wrongful claim that an employee is either exempt or an independent contractor is a violation of the FLSA known as employee misclassification.

The FLSA allows employees to file lawsuits against their employers for alleged wage and hour violations. Notably, § 16(b) of the FLSA allows employees to file suit on their own behalf and on behalf of “​​other employees similarly situated.” The requirements for a collective action under the FLSA are similar to those for a class action under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. One important difference is that, while many class actions automatically include people who meet the description of class members and receive notice of the suit, the FLSA requires all plaintiffs to consent to participation in a collective action in writing. To put that another way, people may have to “opt out” of a class action and “opt in” to a collective action.
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New Jersey’s employment laws protect workers whose employers try to classify them as independent contractors instead of employees. Independent contractors do not enjoy the full range of safeguards offered by state law. Wage and hour laws, for example, only apply to employees. Some employers may try to misclassify employees as independent contractors as a way of avoiding various legal obligations. Employment misclassification is a violation of state law. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled against a business in a misclassification claim. It ruled that workers who operated as separate business entities were still employees under state law.

A 2015 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court applied a three-part test, known as the “ABC test,” to the question of whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. The test is notable for being very favorable toward workers claiming to be employees and placing the burden of proof on employers. It gets its name from the definition of “employment” found in the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Law, codified at N.J. Rev. Stat. § ​​43:21-19(i)(6)(A) through (C).

The ABC test presumes that an individual is an employee unless an employer can establish all three of the following:
A. The employer does not direct or control how the worker does their job.
B. The services provided by the worker are either outside of the scope of the employer’s usual business activities, or performed somewhere other than the employer’s regular place of business.
C. The worker’s services are part of a business or trade that the worker has established apart from the employer.
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The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits discrimination in numerous areas of life, including employment and education. Claims involving discrimination in educational environments are often quite similar to New Jersey workplace discrimination claims. While they might involve alleged acts by teachers, professors, coaches, or administrators rather than supervisors or managers, the standards of evidence are the same or very similar. New Jersey courts have recognized claims that allege hostile educational environments using the same test applied to hostile work environment claims. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently affirmed a lower court order denying a university’s motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit by former students alleging a hostile educational environment under the NJLAD. Notably, the claim alleges harassment of a group rather than individuals.

The NJLAD identifies race, sex, and sexual orientation as protected categories in the workplace. Employers may not discriminate on the basis of these and other factors, which may include subjecting one or more employees to harassment or a hostile work environment. The New Jersey Supreme Court described a four-part test for identifying a hostile work environment in a 1993 decision: The alleged conduct (1) only occurred because of the employee’s sex or membership in another protected category, and (2) it was so “severe or pervasive” that (3) a reasonable person belonging to the same protected category would conclude that (4) the conduct has changed the “conditions of employment” and rendered the “working environment…hostile or abusive.” The decision specifically involved sexual harassment, but New Jersey courts have since applied this test to claims involving alleged hostile work and educational environments based on other factors as well.

When assessing claims alleging hostile work environments or hostile educational environments, courts must consider how multiple acts of harassment or hostility may affect someone over time. In a 2003 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the need to look at the “cumulative [e]ffect of individual acts,” rather than each alleged act in isolation.

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Employers may include provisions in employment contracts or settlement agreements that limit employees’ ability to discuss issues like sexual harassment with others. When a settlement agreement contains this kind of provision, it may mean that the public cannot learn about the employee’s experience in the workplace. Other employees could be at risk of the same kind of experience if the employer took no action against the individual — or individuals — whose conduct led to the complaint and settlement. The New Jersey Legislature passed a law in 2019 that prohibits the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in connection with claims involving employment discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. A bill now pending in the New Jersey Senate would also prohibit non-disparagement clauses or agreements in those situations. If you have concerns about non-disclosure agreements involving a workplace matter, reach out to a New Jersey employment lawyer to get legal advice.

Businesses often use NDAs as a way to protect trade secrets and other proprietary information. An employment contract might include an NDA that protects information that could be of great interest or value to the employer’s competitors. Employers have also used NDAs to protect other kinds of information besides trade secrets, such as information that could be embarrassing.

News reports have identified numerous cases in which sexual harassment settlements included NDAs. Under this kind of NDA, one of the conditions for receiving a settlement payment is a promise by the complainant never to disclose the circumstances of the sexual harassment claims. The effect of this kind of NDA has been to keep important safety information away from the public. New Jersey passed a law in 2019 barring NDAs in employment contracts and settlement agreements as they might pertain to any “claim of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment.”
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Arbitration can allow the parties to a dispute to avoid the time and expense of litigation. More and more businesses are including clauses in consumer and employment contracts that require the parties to go to arbitration before filing a lawsuit. In some situations, arbitration may tend to favor businesses over individuals for numerous reasons. New Jersey lawmakers have attempted to limit the availability of mandatory arbitration contracts for certain claims, but several courts have ruled that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) precludes such laws. The FAA grants broad approval to arbitration contracts and arbitration awards. It also excludes certain groups of workers from its provisions. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of an airline employee who objected to arbitration of her overtime compensation claims. The ruling in Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon held that the employee is a “transportation worker” who is exempt from the FAA. If you have questions regarding arbitration in the workplace, contact a New Jersey employment lawyer to discuss your situation.

An arbitration proceeding resembles litigation in many ways. Both parties to a dispute must agree in advance to use arbitration. The parties present evidence and arguments to a neutral third party, known as the arbitrator. After considering both sides’ cases, the arbitrator may make an award that is similar to a verdict.

The FAA states that arbitration agreements are generally “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable,” except when they might not be under contract law principles like fraud or duress. If an arbitration agreement specifically states that the arbitrator’s award will be binding, the FAA limits courts’ authority to do anything other than confirm the award and enter it as a judgment, with few exceptions. Courts can only vacate or modify an arbitrator’s award with evidence of corruption, fraud, other forms of misconduct, or significant errors.
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New Jersey’s employment laws guarantee a minimum wage and overtime compensation for millions of workers. They protect employees from various forms of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. They bar employers from retaliating against workers who object to unlawful or unethical conduct. In order to enjoy the benefits of state and federal employment laws, however, a worker must be an “employee.” The definition of “employee” can be ambiguous and subject to debate. Employers may try to describe an employee as an independent contractor in order to avoid obligations set by state wage and hour laws and other statutes. New Jersey has developed a test for determining whether an individual is an employee. A federal judge recently granted summary judgment for a plaintiff in a wage and hour dispute.

Wrongfully categorizing an employee as an independent contractor is known as “employee misclassification.” It is considered a violation of wage and hour laws when an employer does it in order to avoid obligations established by those laws. New Jersey has adopted the “ABC test” to determine whether a worker is an employee or not. The test receives its name from the definition of “employment” found in New Jersey’s Unemployment Compensation Law at N.J. Rev. Stat. § 43:21-1(i)(6)(A) through (C).

A worker is presumed to be an “employee” under the ABC test unless they meet all three of the following criteria:
A. The employer does not exercise “control or direction” over the worker’s job duties and job performance.
B. Either the services the worker performs are “outside the [employer’s] usual course of…business,” or they perform those services “outside of all the [employer’s] places of business.”
C. The worker’s services are normally part of their own “trade, occupation, profession or business,” which is separate from the employer’s business.
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