Articles Posted in Employment Discrimination

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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New Jersey employment laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants on the basis of religion. At both the state and federal levels, laws dealing with religious discrimination in employment have two components. First, employers may not make adverse decisions or take adverse actions based solely or primarily on an individual’s religious beliefs, practices, or identity. Second, employers must make reasonable accommodations for employee’s religious practices, as long as doing so does not impose an “undue hardship” on them. The U.S. Supreme Court recently revisited the current standard, established in 1977, for determining what constitutes an undue hardship for religious accommodations. The court’s June 2023 decision in Groff v. Dejoy places a greater burden on employers to demonstrate undue hardship. This potentially grants greater rights to employees with religious obligations.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines “religion” to include “all aspects of religious observance and practice.” It requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” employees’ religious observances or practices, with an exception for “undue hardship” to the employer. The statute does not define this term.

In 1977, the Supreme Court addressed the meaning of the term in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison. It held that anything “more than a de minimis cost” would pose an undue hardship for the employer. This effectively means that anything beyond an insignificant cost to the employer would be excused under Title VII.
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The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard made significant changes to how many colleges and universities will handle their admissions processes. The court essentially found that race-based affirmative action programs violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This has led to questions about whether the ruling could affect New Jersey employment discrimination claims that rely on Title VII of that statute. It is possible that the Harvard decision will impact how employers approach recruitment, particularly with regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. This could affect broader patterns in hiring, but it is too early to say how — or if — the decision will impact individual hiring decisions.

Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of five broad categories: race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. Statutes and Supreme Court decisions have expanded the definitions of some of these terms. For example, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 added discrimination based on pregnancy and childbirth to the definition of sex discrimination. The Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County held that sex discrimination under Title VII includes discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Harvard ruling specifically addresses claims of discrimination on the basis of race under Title VI. Over the years, the Supreme Court has identified numerous forms of workplace race discrimination that violate Title VII. This includes both overt and subtle forms of discrimination. In 1971, the court ruled in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. that an employer can violate Title VII even if it had no intent to discriminate based on race. The case involved an employment policy that had a disparate impact on Black job applicants. The aspects of the policy that created the disparity had no reasonable relationship to job duties or performance.
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In New Jersey, employment laws prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of factors like sex, race, religion, disability, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity, to name but a few. This state was ahead of many other states in adding the latter two categories to its anti-discrimination statute. At the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) determined some time ago that discrimination based on sex includes sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. This conclusion, however, did not have the force of law. Federal anti-discrimination law did not include these categories until the U.S. Supreme Court reached essentially the same conclusion as the EEOC in 2020. Earlier this year, the EEOC published an article tracing the history of LGBTQI+ rights in the workplace and discussing best practices for employers under federal law.

According to the EEOC, only twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have employment laws that specifically prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. New Jersey is among them. Significant improvements in LGBTQI+ rights probably began in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed “homosexuality” from its list of psychiatric disorders. Two years later, Pennsylvania enacted the first state law against sexual orientation discrimination in employment. New Jersey followed with an amendment to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) in 1991.

A 2006 amendment to the NJLAD added “gender identity or expression” to the list of protected categories. New Jersey was actually ahead of the APA in this case. The organization did not remove “gender identity disorder” from its manual until 2012, replacing it with the diagnosis of “gender dysphoria.” Both the New Jersey Legislature and the APA remained ahead of the federal government on these issues.
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Artificial intelligence (AI) has received a large amount of media coverage recently, largely due to applications that use AI to create visual or written works. Businesses have been using AI tools for a variety of purposes for some time, including the hiring process. Since AI is a relatively new technology, New Jersey employment laws have not caught up to many of its latest functions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken notice of numerous risks posed by AI, including implicit bias in hiring. Last year, it issued guidance regarding the use of AI as a decision-making tool. It joined with several other federal agencies in April 2023 to issue a joint statement about potential legal liabilities from relying on AI. A bill pending in the New Jersey Legislature would regulate AI tools that could contribute to employment discrimination. A similar law is set to take effect in New York City in July.

Multiple state and federal statutes prohibit discrimination in hiring, firing, and other features of employment based on certain factors. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) specifically protects workers against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age, genetic information, and other protected categories. Federal laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 also deal with workplace discrimination.

Discrimination does not have to be overt or intentional to violate the law. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that employment policies or practices are unlawful if they have a discriminatory impact. Much of the concern over the use of AI in hiring decisions stems from the fact that it might use data from past hiring practices to guide decisions in the present. This can lead to disparate impact discrimination, even if no one intended to discriminate.
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The United States has been subject to multiple declared States of Emergency (SOEs) and Public Health Emergencies (PHE) since March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning at that point, and it continued to be a major concern well into 2021 and 2022. As of May 2023, the federal government and the State of New Jersey have ended some or all of their emergency declarations. The New Jersey governor officially ended the state’s PHE more than a year ago, in March 2022, while the state’s SOE remains in place. Most recently, the federal PHE ended on May 11, 2023. The state and federal emergencies have had a major impact on how New Jersey employment laws protect workers. The end of those declarations could also impact New Jersey workers.

What Was the Public Health Emergency?

The federal government issued emergency declarations in early 2020. The New Jersey governor issued Executive Order (EO) 103, which declared both a SOE and a PHE, on March 9, 2020.

Emergency declarations give various extra powers, mostly related to healthcare, to local, state, and federal governments. This often includes mandates affecting employers. EO 292, issued in March 2022, ended the New Jersey PHE but left the SOE in place. The national SOE ended on April 10, 2023, followed by the PHE on May 11.

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The New Jersey Legislature passed a law in 2021 that legalizes the recreational use of cannabis. The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act (CREAMMA) protects employees against adverse actions by their employers based on legal cannabis use. While the state has issued guidelines that address how employers should handle issues like impairment in the workplace, many aspects of the new law’s employment protections have yet to be tested in the courts. A New Jersey federal court recently ruled in favor of a plaintiff who has alleged wrongful termination by his employer in violation of CREAMMA, denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

The employment provisions of CREAMMA attempt to balance employees’ legal rights with employers’ interest in maintaining drug-free workplaces. Employers may not refuse to hire someone because they engage in legal cannabis use, nor may they fire them or take other adverse actions against them for that reason. Employees also have the right to refuse to engage in activities that are legal under CREAMMA. Drug testing by employers is allowed under certain circumstances. Employers may require that employees abstain from legal cannabis use and not be under the influence of cannabis during work hours. With some exceptions, though, they cannot prohibit lawful use outside of work.

The lawsuit described above arose from an automobile accident in late 2021 involving the plaintiff, who was driving a company vehicle at the time. According to the court, the plaintiff was not under the influence of cannabis or any other substance, nor did anyone suspect that he was. The employer required the plaintiff to submit to a drug test as a standard part of its safety policy. The plaintiff claims that, prior to the drug test, he alerted the employer about cannabis use outside of work about two weeks earlier. The test was positive for cannabis, resulting in the plaintiff”s immediate suspension.
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