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Articles Posted in Employment Discrimination

Criminal history can be one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the search for a job. Steady employment is a critically important factor in returning to normal life after a criminal conviction. Many employers, however, do not want to hire anyone with a criminal record, even if the specific details of a job applicant’s history would not affect the job they want to do. New Jersey’s Opportunity to Compete Act (OTCA) states that employers may not ask about criminal history until later in the hiring process. It does not offer as much protection for job applicants as similar laws in other states and cities. At the federal level, discrimination based on criminal history could be unlawful in certain circumstances. A New Jersey employment attorney can help you explore your options if you have experienced this kind of discrimination.

The OTCA only offers limited protection for job applicants with criminal records. It does not restrict how employers may act upon criminal history information once an applicant has made it past the initial stages of the hiring process. If an employer violates the statute, it does not expressly state that a job applicant may file a lawsuit for damage. Instead, it states that the only remedy for a violation is a civil penalty paid to the state.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals considered a criminal history discrimination claim brought under the OTCA in a 2020 decision. The decision is one of the few to address criminal history discrimination in New Jersey, but it sheds little light on whether the OTCA allows private causes of action.
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Numerous states around the country have taken action to protect workers from discrimination on the basis of certain hairstyles that have a close connection to race or national origin. Many states have titled these bills the Create a Respectful and Open Workspace for Natural Hair Act, or CROWN Act. New Jersey passed its CROWN Act, which amended the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), in late 2019. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not specifically mention hairstyle discrimination as a form of race discrimination. On March 18, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a federal CROWN Act that will prohibit hairstyle discrimination nationwide if it becomes law. The U.S. Senate received the bill on March 22. If your employer has policies regarding appearance that conflict with your hairstyle, you may have a hairstyle discrimination claim. To learn more, reach out to a New Jersey employment lawyer as soon as possible.

Many employers have maintained policies regarding appearance that have particularly affected African-American workers and others with African ancestry. Policies that require a “professional” appearance often bar many hairstyles commonly associated with this group, including both natural and protective hairstyles. Complying with these workplace policies may require many employees to use expensive treatments to straighten their hair. Over time, these treatments can cause serious damage.

New Jersey’s CROWN Act amended the NJLAD’s definition of “race” to include “hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles,” along with other “traits historically associated with race.” The bill defined “protective hairstyles” to include “braids, locks, and twists.” Under New Jersey law, discrimination on the basis of hairstyles historically associated with race now constitutes race discrimination.
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Criminal background checks are increasingly common in the hiring process. They often present a major stumbling block for people who are trying to put their lives together after a criminal conviction. Many employers simply refuse to hire anyone with a felony record, regardless of whether the offense has any relation to the job a person is seeking. Employment laws in New Jersey and other states are trying to rectify the situation. The New Jersey Legislature passed the Opportunity to Compete Act (OTCA) in 2014. Federal law does not include specific protections against discrimination based on criminal history, but several provisions of federal law can indirectly affect how employers conduct background checks on job applicants.

When it passed the OTCA, the state legislature recognized the importance of “[r]emoving obstacles to employment for people with criminal records.” It found that as many as 65 million people nationwide faced difficulty finding jobs because of their criminal records, and that up to ninety percent of employers use criminal background checks to some extent during the hiring process. Since having a job “significantly reduces the risk of recidivism” for people with criminal histories, the state legislature concluded that it had to act. The OTCA does not go as far as many similar laws, but it is a step in the right direction.

The OTCA is part of a group of laws passed by state and local governments around the country known as “Ban the Box” laws. The OTCA prohibits employers from asking New Jersey job applicants about criminal history at the beginning of the hiring process. The “box” refers to the “yes/no” checkbox found on many job application forms asking whether someone has ever been convicted of a criminal offense. Checking the box, which indicates that an applicant has one or more convictions, has often resulted in the application going directly into employers’ “rejected” piles.
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New Jersey’s employment laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants on the basis of a wide range of factors. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination provides the broadest protection against numerous discriminatory acts and policies, such as race discrimination or sexual harassment. Other state laws bar employers from discriminating on the basis of other factors. New Jersey’s “Smokers’ Rights Act” (SRA), enacted in 1991, addresses discrimination by employers because an employee uses — or declines to use — tobacco products. Other areas of state law restrict smoking in workplaces, so the SRA mainly addresses employers who seek to penalize employees for behavior outside of work.

The SRA states that an employer may not refuse to hire someone, fire them, or “take any adverse action…with respect to compensation, terms, conditions or other privileges of employment” because that person “does or does not smoke or use other tobacco products.” The statute makes an exception for situations when an employer has a “rational basis” for an act that would otherwise be unlawful. This “rational basis” must be “reasonably related to the employment.” When legislators use vague language like this, it is often up to the courts to determine what is “rational” and “reasonable.”

The protections provided by the SRA do not override other state laws addressing tobacco use in public. They also may not conflict with employment policies that limit or prohibit smoking in the workplace during work hours. A law passed by the New Jersey Legislature in 2005, for example, effectively bans smoking in all workplaces throughout the state. The SRA is similar to the Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act (CREAMMA). This statute allows recreational cannabis use and, with some exceptions, bars employment discrimination based on cannabis use outside of work. They are both relatively unexplored areas of New Jersey employment discrimination law.
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Federal and state laws in New Jersey protect workers from discrimination on the basis of age, with some important limitations. The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) sets a minimum age for workers, as well as a minimum number of employees before the statute covers an employer. Until recently, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) set a maximum age for protection from certain discriminatory acts based on age. A bill passed in late 2021 amends the NJLAD and other provisions of state law to expand the scope of age discrimination protection. It removed the maximum age and added new a new cause of action for employees. If you feel you have been discriminated against on the basis of your age, it would be worth your while to consult with a New Jersey employment discrimination lawyer at your earliest convenience.

Prior to late 2021, both the ADEA and the NJLAD set age limits for their provisions regarding age discrimination. The ADEA prohibits discrimination on the basis of age against people who are at least forty years old. A thirty-year-old individual fired because of their age, whether the employer considered them too young or too old, would therefore not be able to assert a cause of action. The statute also only applies to employers with twenty or more employees, so a fifty-year-old employee of a business with ten employees would also not have a claim under the ADEA.

The NJLAD, before its recent amendment, prohibited discrimination on the basis of age without regard to the total number of employees. It set no minimum age, so the hypothetical thirty-year-old worker would be able to make a claim. It set a maximum age, however, of seventy years. Specifically, it stated that the prohibition on age discrimination did not prevent employers “from refusing to accept for employment or to promote” a person over the age of seventy. This provided employers with a safe harbor for certain forms of age discrimination against older workers.
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Unlawful sex discrimination takes many forms in New Jersey workplaces. Overt discrimination, such as when an employer directly states an intention not to hire individuals of one gender, might not be as common as it once was, if only because it is less socially acceptable in the 21st century. It persists, though, in both blatant and subtle forms. Sex discrimination can also occur when a policy or practice disproportionately affects people of one gender, even if the employer has no intent to discriminate. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently published a study that examines these two forms of sex discrimination, calling them “conscious exclusion” and “unconscious bias.” The study offers some useful observations for New Jersey workers.

Disparate Treatment vs. Disparate Impact Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as interpreted by the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), bars employers from engaging in disparate treatment based on a protected category. It also bars them from maintaining policies or practices that have a disparate impact on employees in a protected category. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination has similar provisions.

“Disparate treatment” consists of overt acts of discrimination and other acts or omissions that directly affect someone based on their sex or another protected category. Examples include refusing to hire someone because of gender, promoting employees of one gender over employees of another without regard to qualifications or merit, and the various forms of sexual harassment.

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The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) bars employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants on the basis of many different factors. Despite these protections, ongoing inequalities continue to create disadvantages for many people. The use of salary history is one way that employers might — even unintentionally — perpetuate systems of discrimination. The New Jersey Legislature amended the NJLAD and other areas of state law a few years ago to address this concern. The new law limits how employers may use salary history in the hiring process with regard to members of any “protected class” under the NJLAD. If you feel you have been discriminated against over salary history issues, it would be a good idea to consult with a New Jersey employment discrimination lawyer.

Protected Classes Under the NJLAD

Section 11(a) of the NJLAD identifies eighteen protected classes. These include race, sex, religion, national origin, pregnancy, disability, ongoing military service, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression. Employers may not discriminate on the basis of any of these factors.

Unequal Pay Under the NJLAD

In § 11(t), the NJLAD specifically addresses unequal pay. It prohibits employers from paying employees who belong to a protected class less than other employees.
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Two federal laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) of 2008, protect employees from discrimination on the basis of disability. Part of this protection involves prohibiting inquiries into employees’ medical histories that are not specifically related to those employees’ jobs. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced that it had settled claims against a New Jersey rail line for allegedly conducting medical examinations and requesting health information from employees in violation of both statutes. If you have been subjected to  disability discrimination in the workplace, reach out to a New Jersey employment lawyer as soon as possible.

The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants on the basis of disability. Employers may not require medical examinations of job applicants or employees under the ADA, except to ask about or assess their ability to perform specific job duties. They may require a medical examination for new hires if the examination is the same for every new employee in the same category “regardless of disability.” The ADA allows mandatory medical examinations of employees if they are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” All other medical examinations or inquiries are prohibited.

GINA protects employees’ and job applicants’ “genetic information,” which it defines as information obtained from genetic tests an individual or their family members, as well as “the manifestation of a disease or disorder” in the individual’s family members. Employers may not request genetic information from employees or job applicants, nor may they request or obtain such information from any third party, except in specific situations. Exceptions include authorization by the employee or job applicant; publicly-available information in a newspaper or book; and “genetic monitoring of the biological effects of toxic substances in the workplace,” provided that the employer has notified the employee and obtained their written consent.
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Unwelcome sexual remarks in the workplace can violate employment statutes in New Jersey that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. This kind of conduct becomes unlawful sexual harassment when it is so severe or pervasive that an objective observer would find it to be a hostile work environment. An employer may be liable for damages under laws like the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) when management is aware of the harassment but does not take reasonable steps to correct the situation. A lawsuit filed in September 2021 in a New Jersey state court alleges sexual harassment by several executives and others at a mortgage lender. If you have been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace, you would be wise to consult with a New Jersey employment attorney as soon as possible.

The NJLAD prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, gender, and numerous other factors. Harassment on the basis of any protected category could violate the law, such as harassment of an employee because of their religion or religious attire. Sexual harassment is particularly insidious in workplaces around the country. The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination under federal law in a 1986 decision, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.

The Meritor decision addressed “unwelcome sexual advances that create an offensive or hostile working environment,” and found that a plaintiff does not have to prove direct economic losses, such as a demotion or cut in pay, to establish that discrimination occurred. The impact of enduring a hostile work environment can be enough, the court held. The New Jersey Supreme Court adopted the Meritor ruling in a 1993 decision addressing a hostile work environment claim under the NJLAD.
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Employment laws in New Jersey and around the country protect workers from discrimination by their employers on the basis of disability. Both state and federal law define “disability” broadly to include a wide range of conditions, including injuries, illnesses, and congenital conditions. After nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are learning more about the long-term effects of the disease on some people. These conditions, often known as “long-haul COVID” or simply “long COVID,” can include symptoms affecting people’s respiratory, neurological, digestive, and reproductive systems, among others. Laws addressing disability discrimination in the workplace may protect people suffering from long COVID. Not only would employers be barred from disparate treatment due to long COVID symptoms, but they would also be obligated to provide reasonable accommodations for those symptoms.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of disability. The NJLAD’s definition of “disability” includes a “physical…disability…[or] infirmity…which is caused by…illness.” The statute lists many specific conditions across a broad range, such as visual or hearing impairments, paralysis, autism spectrum disorder, and HIV infection or AIDS. The initial language regarding “illness,” however, suggests that the long-term impact of disease also qualifies as a disability.

The ADA specifically states that courts and others should construe its definition of “disability” “in favor of broad coverage of individuals…to the maximum extent permitted by the” statute. It defines the term, in part, as a “physical…impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” including “walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, [and] breathing.”
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