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When applying New Jersey employment laws dealing with discrimination, courts have long held that plaintiffs must prove that they suffered actual harm. This might involve the loss of a job, lower wages, or the loss of other benefits or features of employment. Many courts around the country have applied similar interpretations to laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court could change how courts in New Jersey and nationwide interpret these laws. A police sergeant alleges that her employer discriminated against her based on sex by transferring her to a different position. The lower courts found that she had not established that an “adverse employment action” had occurred. A ruling in her favor could help plaintiffs prove unlawful discrimination in cases where the discrimination did not cause them to suffer major disadvantages.

Title VII prohibits discrimination based on several categories, including sex. Section 703(a)(1) of the statute addresses unlawful practices by employers. While it identifies several specific adverse actions, such as firing someone or refusing to hire them, it also includes a catch-all category that simply states employers may not “otherwise…discriminate” against employees or job applicants because of sex or other protected categories.

The plain language of § 703(a)(1) does not necessarily require proof that a discriminatory act had a negative impact. This might affect the amount of damages a plaintiff could receive, but under this view, it would not affect whether or not they could assert a claim. Most courts, however, have taken the view that some employment discrimination claims require proof that a plaintiff suffered tangible harm.
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Numerous laws protect the rights of employees in the workplace. For those laws to apply to a particular individual, they must have an employment relationship with their employer, as defined by law. Not everyone in a workplace is necessarily an employee. Some might be independent contractors. While employees have a wide range of legal protections, independent contractors often only have whatever protections are included in their contracts. Employers sometimes falsely claim that an employee is an independent contractor, which is known as employee misclassification. New Jersey employment law uses a test to distinguish between employees and independent contractors that generally favors employees. At the federal level, the definition used by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) for wage and hour claims has changed several times in recent years. The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) recently published a final rule regarding “employee” status under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The new rule is more employee-friendly than its predecessor.

Employers might misclassify employees as independent contractors to avoid legal obligations like minimum wage or overtime pay. New Jersey uses the “ABC test” to determine whether an individual is an employee or an independent contractor. The test gets its name from the definition of “employee” found in § 43:21-19(i)(6)(A)-(C) of the New Jersey Revised Statutes. An individual is presumed to be an employee under the ABC test unless an employer can demonstrate all of the following elements:
A. The individual exercises total control over when and how they do their job.
B. Their work is either outside of the scope of the employer’s usual business, or they do their work away from any of the employer’s regular worksites.
C. They have their own business, occupation, or trade separate from the employer.

The WHD’s new employee classification rule applies to wage and hour claims under the FLSA. It replaces a rule that the WHD put into place in January 2021, less than two weeks before the end of the previous presidential administration’s term. That rule, which took effect on March 8, 2021, was generally more favorable to employers. Independent contractor status was based on two “core factors”:
1. The amount of control that an individual has over how they do their job; and
2. Their ability to increase their income without working longer hours or producing more output.
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Harassment in the workplace violates federal and New Jersey employment laws in certain circumstances. The harassment must be based on a protected category like race, sex, or religion. It must negatively impact someone’s employment, such as when it creates a hostile work environment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates alleged harassment that violates federal employment laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In October 2023, the agency issued a new proposed guidance document on unlawful workplace harassment and sought comments from the public. Should the EEOC decide to issue a final guidance document, it would be the first significant update to its guidance in over twenty years.

When Is Harassment Unlawful?

Offensive conduct rises to the level of unlawful harassment in several situations. First, the conduct must be motivated by a protected characteristic like race or sex. Second, one of the following must apply:
– A worker must endure offensive, unwelcome conduct to maintain their employment;
– The conduct is so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person would consider the work environment to be hostile; or
– The conduct is intended to retaliate against a worker for legally protected activities like reporting alleged discrimination.

What Kinds of Conduct Can Constitute Harassment?

A wide range of behaviors can constitute harassment, including offensive jokes or comments, offensive images or gestures, ridicule, intimidation, threats, or physical assault. It can come from managers, supervisors, co-workers, and non-employees like contractors or customers.
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Domestic workers, such as in-home caregivers, play a vital role in our society. Federal and New Jersey employment laws treat some domestic workers differently than other workers, including exemptions for minimum wage and overtime pay. The federal government has made it a priority to improve legal protections for domestic workers. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently issued a series of sample employment contracts for domestic workers that outline their legal rights. New Jersey is making similar improvements, such as the New Jersey Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights (DWBR), which the governor signed into law in January 2024.

The Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA) sets a nationwide minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and requires employers to pay time-and-a-half for overtime work. The law contains numerous exceptions and exemptions, including domestic workers in certain circumstances. The DOL defines “domestic service employment” as “services of a household nature” performed in a private home. This may include babysitters, nannies, home health aides, nurses, and handymen.

As a general rule, the FLSA provides the same protections for domestic workers regarding minimum wage and overtime as it does for other workers. It does, however, make two exemptions:
– Section 13(a)(15) of the FLSA exempts several types of workers from its minimum wage and overtime provisions: babysitters who are “employed on a casual basis” and individuals who “provide companionship services” to people who cannot care for themselves. The DOL interprets employment “on a casual basis” to mean that the individual does not rely solely on babysitting income or only provides services intermittently. The “companion” exemption applies to individuals who care for an “elderly person or person with an illness, injury, or disability.”
– Section 13(b)(21) exempts live-in domestic workers from the FLSA’s overtime provisions.
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Protecting the rights of employees and job applicants in New Jersey and around the country requires a complex system of courts and government agencies. Both federal and New Jersey employment laws rely on agencies to interpret, implement, and enforce those laws. Many employment disputes must go through an administrative process before a person can file a lawsuit in court, such as the process of filing a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Some agencies have administrative law judges (ALJs) who can rule on disputes. This helps keep court dockets from becoming even more overloaded. If a case does go before a federal court, a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision states that judges should defer to agencies’ interpretations of the law in certain situations. Two cases currently pending before the Supreme Court could upend this system.

Administrative Law Judges

Many employment law disputes go before ALJs, who have the authority to adjudicate certain matters. ALJs with the U.S. Department of Labor handle various employment-related claims. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ALJs who adjudicate labor complaints.

ALJs are not part of the federal court system. Article III of the U.S. Constitution addresses the Judicial Branch of the federal government. ALJs are part of the system of administrative agencies under the Executive Branch. This is part of the dispute now before the Supreme Court in Securities and Exchange Commission v. Jarkesy.
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Employees who suspect that their employers are engaging in unlawful acts might hesitate to report what they know for fear of losing their jobs. Federal and New Jersey employment laws address those concerns by prohibiting employers from retaliating against employees, commonly known as whistleblowers, who voice their concerns about allegedly unlawful practices. The federal False Claims Act (FCA) gives whistleblowers an added incentive to go public in cases involving alleged fraud against the federal government. An employee can file a qui tam lawsuit under the FCA on behalf of the United States. The employee is entitled to a percentage of the settlement or award in the case. A lawsuit currently pending in a New Jersey federal court involves a hospital administrator who alleges that his now-former employer defrauded a COVID-19 relief program.

The FCA establishes a civil penalty of $5,000 to $10,000 for various types of false claims and other fraudulent activities targeting the federal government. The government may file suit under the FCA. An individual, known as the “relator,” may file suit on the government’s behalf. Relators are often employees with knowledge of alleged wrongdoing by their employers. The government can intervene and take over the case from the relator. If the government declines to intervene, the relator may continue pursuing the lawsuit on their own.

The relator is entitled to a percentage of any recovery in the lawsuit, whether it comes from a settlement or an award after a trial. If the federal government intervenes and takes over the case, the relator may receive fifteen to twenty-five percent. They are entitled to twenty-five to thirty percent if they pursue the case themselves.
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To assert a claim for violations of New Jersey employment laws, a person must be able to demonstrate that an employer-employee relationship exists. State and federal employment statutes tend to provide vague definitions of terms like “employee” and “employer.” Courts and regulatory agencies provide more detailed definitions. For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court has adopted a test to distinguish between employees with the full protection of state and federal employment law and independent contractors with contractual rights and remedies. In other situations, multiple entities may exercise control over an employee’s work, making it difficult to determine who is their “employer” under the law. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently issued a new rule for determining when an employee has “joint employers.” The rule can help employees hold employers liable for violations of federal labor law.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects employees’ rights to “self-organization” and “other concerted activities” intended to protect employees or promote their welfare. Employers may not threaten or interfere with employees who are engaging in protected activities. The NLRB investigates claims of unlawful activity by employers.

“Joint employer” status can be an issue in situations where more than one company or other entity has some degree of control over an employee’s work. An employee might draw a paycheck from a staffing agency, for example, but take orders from a business that contracts with the agency. Someone who works for a business that operates a franchise might be subject to requirements from their direct employer, known as the franchisee, and the franchisor. The joint employer rule seeks to determine how many entities are acting as an “employer.”
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New Jersey employment laws strive to ensure that employees receive a minimum wage, additional payment for overtime work, and other rights. For a worker to recover damages for unlawful actions by their employer, they must demonstrate that an employment relationship exists between them and their employer. Laws that address matters like wages and overtime pay apply to employees, but not independent contractors who have a less formal legal relationship with their employers. Employers sometimes engage in “misclassification,” meaning that they wrongfully classify employees as independent contractors to avoid obligations under state and federal employment laws. New Jersey employees can sue employers for misclassification. A law passed by the state legislature in 2021 allows the state to sue employers who allegedly misclassify employees. In December 2023, the New Jersey Attorney General (AG) filed the first lawsuit under this law seeking back pay and other remedies for the defendant’s employees.

Independent contractors do not enjoy the protection of many employment laws. Their recourse is often limited to the terms of their contracts. Employees, on the other hand, have broad protections under New Jersey law. Defining who is an “employee” and who is not can be tricky. The New Jersey Wage and Hour Law, for example, defines the term as “any individual employed by an employer.” Most other state and federal statutes are not much more helpful. It has largely fallen to the courts to develop ways to distinguish employees from independent contractors.

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2015 that adopts the “ABC test” in employee misclassification cases. The test gets its name from a section of the state’s unemployment law that contains a three-part definition of “employee” with subsections labeled A through C. A New Jersey court will presume that an individual is or was an employee unless the employer establishes all three of the following:
A. The employer did not have the right to exercise control over how the worker did their job, nor did they exercise such control.
B. The worker’s services were either performed away from the employer’s usual place(s) of business, or they were outside of the employer’s usual type of business.
C. The worker has their own profession that does not depend solely on the employer, meaning that they may continue to work for others if their relationship with the employer ends.
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Employee paychecks are subject to some quite complicated regulations, particularly when it comes to what employers may, may not, and must withhold from employee pay. Perhaps the most well-known form of withholding is for Social Security and Medicare, commonly known as payroll taxes, and federal income tax. States that maintain their own income tax may require employers to withhold that as well. New Jersey is among those states. When employment relationships cross state lines, withholding requirements can get even more confusing. New Jersey employment laws give workers some remedies for unlawful paycheck deductions, but this does not necessarily cover errors involving tax withholding. A new law passed by the state legislature addresses New Jersey income tax withholding for out-of-state remote workers based on a rule known as the “convenience of the employer.”

New Jersey employers may withhold money from employee paychecks when required to do so by state or federal law, such as for federal income tax. They may withhold funds from paychecks for any other purpose only when the employee has authorized it in writing. Authorization can come from an individual employee or a collective bargaining agreement with an authorized representative.

Unauthorized deductions from employee paychecks can result in penalties that include fines and jail time. Employees may also bring a civil lawsuit to recover the amounts unlawfully withheld, plus three times that amount as liquidated damages, court costs, and attorney’s fees. This provision of New Jersey law does not apply to tax withholding errors made by an employer. An employee whose employer fails to withhold the correct amount of income tax will be liable to pay the correct amount. It might, however, be possible to raise the employer’s error as a defense to the assessment of late payment penalties.
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Employment discrimination can take many forms, some of which are practically invisible to anyone who does not have access to an employer’s books. Pay disparities based on factors like sex or race are still common in many workplaces. Laws like the federal Equal Pay Act (EPA) attempt to address gender-based wage gaps, and antidiscrimination laws can help take on pay disparities based on other factors. Some employers maintain policies that make addressing wage gaps difficult, such as by leaving pay information out of job listings. Advocates for fair pay need this information to identify where wage gaps are occurring. Pay transparency laws attempt to rectify this issue by requiring disclosure of wage rates. New Jersey employment law currently does not include pay transparency provisions, but a bill pending in the state legislature could change that.

Many wage gaps are not intentional, meaning they did not result from conscious decisions by current managers to pay certain employees less than other employees who work the same or similar jobs. Instead, many pay disparities reflect a long history of discrimination that goes back to a time when employers did make conscious decisions to discriminate. Women, for example, often received lower pay than men based on gender stereotypes. This created a longstanding practice of paying women less than men for the same work that persists to this day. Race-based wage gaps are also very common, resulting in pay disparities that affect women of color more than most other groups.

The EPA and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) both prohibit pay discrimination based on factors like sex. The NJLAD goes further and covers every protected category, including race, color, and national origin. It also protects employees from retaliation for asking other employees how much they make or disclosing their pay rate to others.
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