Articles Posted in Employment Discrimination

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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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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Employers are increasingly relying on tools that use artificial intelligence (AI) for various employment-related purposes. AI tools can be useful for tasks that require sifting through large amounts of information, such as the hiring process. New Jersey employment laws set limits on employers when they are making hiring decisions. Employers may not, for example, screen job candidates based on protected categories like disability, genetic history, or pregnancy. Employers are liable for these types of hiring decisions even when they outsource them to someone else. This includes AI tools, but the law in New Jersey remains unclear on how laws against employment discrimination apply to virtual decision-makers. The White House recently issued an executive order (EO) providing directives to various executive agencies regarding AI. These include instructions to agencies that enforce federal employment laws to review current AI practices with the goal of “ensur[ing] that AI deployed in the workplace advances employees’ well-being.”

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits employers from taking various adverse actions against job applicants and employees solely based on factors like race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, and others. This includes refusing to consider someone for employment because of a protected category. Many of the categories identified by the NJLAD have historically served as the basis for countless adverse hiring decisions.

One concern about the use of AI in screening job applicants and assisting in hiring decisions is that human biases, whether consciously held or not, could become part of the software’s algorithms. Neither federal nor New Jersey employment laws currently address this concern. New York City enacted a bill several years ago that requires periodic “bias audits” for AI-based tools that employers use in the hiring process. This process involves reviewing AI tools to see if they have any sort of disparate impact on members of protected categories. Lawmakers introduced a similar bill in the New Jersey Assembly in December 2022, but it has not advanced beyond its initial committee assignment.
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New Jersey employment law protects workers from discrimination on the basis of numerous factors, such as race, religion, sex, disability, and national origin, to name only a few. In some cases, an employer’s unlawful actions clearly violate someone’s legal rights based on one of the protected categories identified in state and federal law. The categories can blur together in other cases, though. This can create confusion. It can also lead people to overlook claims that they might have under state and federal antidiscrimination laws. Some types of bias and discrimination can span multiple categories, including race, color, religion, and national origin. New Jersey employees should be aware of their rights when it comes to these types of issues.

Both the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964 specifically identify race, color, religion, and national origin as protected categories. This means that employers may not take adverse actions against employees or job applicants on the basis of any of these factors. This includes refusing to hire someone, demoting them, firing them, or denying them opportunities to advance their careers. Employers may have to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ religion observances, as long as doing so does not create an undue burden.

Title VII does not provide definitions for the terms “race,” “color,” or “national origin.” It defines “religion” as including “​​all aspects of religious observance and practice.” The NJLAD does not define “religion,” “color,” or “national origin.” Its definition of race includes the common understanding of that term along with “traits historically associated with race,” such as hairstyles and types of hair.
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The term “quiet quitting” gained traction on social media in 2022, and debates over whether or not it is a real phenomenon have continued throughout 2023. It generally involves employees who are unwilling to do more than what their job description specifically requires. A related concept, “quiet firing,” has also emerged. It involves an employer that, rather than directly firing an employee, takes adverse actions that drive the employee to the point of resigning. While “quiet firing” might be a new term, it is not a new concept in New Jersey employment law. Constructive discharge, in which an employer makes working conditions so intolerable that an employee feels they have no choice but to quit, may violate laws against wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

What Is “Quiet Firing”?

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) defines “quiet firing” as the practice of “intentionally creat[ing] a hostile work environment that encourages people to leave voluntarily.” This arguably saves the employer money on severance and unemployment benefits.

This is hardly new to the workplace. Individual managers and supervisors have long used these kinds of tactics to drive out employees for various reasons. The HBR, however, suggests that some employers are now being more systematic about it. It notes studies from the past few years that show growing numbers of employees who leave their jobs for reasons like “feeling disrespected.”
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Workers who suffer injuries or illnesses may have protection against losing their jobs if they are temporarily unable to work. New Jersey employment laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. The definition of this term under state law includes many temporary conditions that can arise from injury or illness. During the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of people nationwide were unable to work at any given moment because of COVID infections. Emergency state and federal laws provided some forms of paid sick leave for people dealing with COVID. It largely fell to antidiscrimination laws to address disparate treatment because of COVID infections. The New Jersey Attorney General (AG) recently announced that his office had settled a disability discrimination claim against a community college district that allegedly fired an employee suffering from COVID rather than granting him accommodations to allow him to continue working. The settlement requires the employer to re-hire the employee and pay him damages.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) provides a broad definition of “disability.” A person must have a condition that either “prevents the typical exercise of any bodily or mental functions” or “is demonstrable…by accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.” COVID-19 meets this definition of “disability” since, among other effects, it can severely impact the respiratory system, leaving a person with limited ability to exert themselves.

Employers may not discriminate against employees or job seekers based on disability, as defined by the NJLAD. This means that an employer may not fire or refuse to hire someone based primarily on a disability. It also means that employers must provide reasonable accommodations that would allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs. “Reasonable” means that the requested accommodation may not be too much of a burden on the employer or their business.
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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 protects employees and job seekers throughout the country from discrimination, harassment, and other acts because of a disability. It also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations that can allow employees with disabilities to perform their job duties. New Jersey employment law also protects against disability discrimination and mandates reasonable accommodations. In July 2023, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued an updated guidance document regarding visual disabilities under the ADA. In addition to reasonable accommodations, the document addresses what employers may and may not ask employees and job applicants with regard to visual impairments.

Visual Disabilities Under the ADA

The ADA’s definition of “disability” involves conditions that “substantially limit[] one or more major life activities,” as well as a record or perception of having such a condition. The definition of “major life activities” includes “seeing.”

The EEOC takes a broad view of whether a visual impairment meets the “substantially limits” standard. If someone’s vision is “substantially limited when compared to the vision of most people in the general population,” it will consider that person to have a disability as defined by the ADA. This does not, however, include people who are able to function with “ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses.”
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Despite a few recent setbacks in the U.S. Supreme Court, New Jersey continues to offer some of the most extensive protections against discrimination in the country. New Jersey’s employment laws, in particular, cover a wide range of protected categories. Employers may not discriminate against employees or job applicants on the basis of those factors. The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis that effectively allowed a private business to discriminate based on sexual orientation despite a state law prohibiting that practice. In response, the New Jersey Attorney General issued a statement affirming that the laws in this state “remain among the strongest in the nation” when it comes to providing protection “against bias and discrimination.” While the Supreme Court decision does not directly impact employment discrimination law, it is worth noting the protections that remain in place for LGBTQ+ people in New Jersey.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) protects a wide range of people from discrimination and other adverse treatment in the workplace. Its protections specifically extend to:
– Affectional or sexual orientation;
– Gender identity; and
– Gender expression.

The statute defines these terms with more specificity. “Affectional or sexual orientation,” for example, addresses how a person directs “affectional, emotional, or physical attraction or behavior” towards other people. “Gender identity or expression” refers to situations in which a person’s gender identity, or their expression thereof, does not necessarily align with stereotypes commonly associated with one’s sex.
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In late 2022, Congress passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) as part of the budget bill. The PWFA expands federal protections for employees who are pregnant or have recently given birth. While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars employers from discriminating against employees and job seekers based on pregnancy or childbirth, it does not require them to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers and new parents. Many New Jersey employment laws, including the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), require reasonable accommodations for pregnancy and childbirth. The PWFA adds this requirement to federal law for employers with at least fifteen employees. The law took effect on June 27, 2023. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published a proposed rule implementing the PWFA on August 11. It will accept comments from the public through October 10.

Title VII, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, defines discrimination “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” as a form of unlawful sex discrimination. This includes refusing to hire someone, firing them, or demoting them because they are pregnant. The NJLAD also prohibits these types of discrimination, and it goes a step further by requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations. For example, a pregnant employee might need extra restroom breaks, as well as a workstation in a location that provides quick access to a restroom. They might need additional water breaks, or temporary light duty assignments because of doctor-ordered lifting restrictions.

The PWFA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for “the known limitations related to [an employee’s] pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition.” It uses the definition of “reasonable accommodation” found in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The term “known limitation” may include any condition related to pregnancy or childbirth that an employee has communicated to their employer, regardless of whether it meets the definition of a “disability” under the ADA. This does not apply to accommodations that “would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the [employer’s] business.” The employer must demonstrate that a particular accommodation would impose such a burden.
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Laws that protect employees’ rights can only be effective if workers feel confident that they can assert their rights without suffering even worse consequences from their employers. A worker who believes their employer has violated the law will not be likely to make a complaint if their employer can demote or fire them in retaliation and with impunity. Workers will hesitate to exercise their rights to engage in labor organizing if nothing is stopping their employers from retaliating against them. Federal and New Jersey employment laws include provisions that bar employers from discriminating or retaliating against workers who engage in protected activities. A New Jersey federal court recently granted a temporary injunction in a lawsuit brought by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on behalf of several workers who alleged wrongful termination. The court ordered their employer to reinstate them.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects workers’ rights to engage in activities related to organizing for the purpose of collective bargaining with their employers. Section 8(a)(1) of the statute prohibits employers from interfering with workers who are engaging in protected activities. Section 8(a)(3) bars discrimination against workers who have joined unions or participated in organizing. The NLRB has authority under § 10(j) of the NLRA to file lawsuits seeking injunctions to prevent or remedy violations of workers’ rights.

The defendant in the NLRB lawsuit operates a commercial cleaning business. According to the court’s ruling, two employees engaged in acts protected by the NLRA at various times in early 2022. This included meetings with representatives of the defendant at which they spoke on behalf of other employees regarding “employee grievances, such as mistreatment from supervisors and threats of being fired.” The two employees reportedly met with union organizers and representatives, followed by discussions with other employees about possibly joining the union. Within a few days, they heard from co-workers that the defendant “was looking for an excuse to fire [them].”
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