Articles Posted in New Jersey Labor Law

Unemployment OfficeNew Jersey employment laws protect the rights of employees in a wide range of areas, including workers’ right to unemployment compensation, subject to various conditions. State agencies and the courts are charged with ensuring that employers and the state fairly apply the rules regarding eligibility for unemployment compensation. The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, recently invalidated part of a rule adopted by the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development (LWD). The challenged rule defined “misconduct,” in the context of unemployment, in a way that the court found “arbitrary and capricious.” In re N.J.A.C. 12:17-2.1, No. A-4636-14T3, slip op. at 3 (N.J. App., May 1, 2017). A consistent definition of “simple misconduct,” the court held, is required to protect workers’ rights.

The New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Law (UCL) states that eligible individuals shall receive benefits for a set period of time after they become “unemployed,” within the meaning established by the statute. See N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 43:21-3, 43:21-19(m)(1). Benefits are paid from an unemployment insurance program funded by payroll tax deductions and employer contributions. In order to obtain benefits, an individual must file a claim with LWD. See N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 43:21-4, 43:21-6.

An individual may be disqualified from eligibility for unemployment benefits if they were “suspended or discharged for misconduct” by their previous employer. Id. at § 43:21-5(b). The employer has the opportunity to respond to a former employee’s unemployment claim, including with allegations of misconduct. The statute identifies three levels of “misconduct”:  simple, severe, and gross misconduct. The challenged LWD rule, codified at N.J.A.C. 12:17-2.1, defines the three levels of misconduct.

SeoulIn 2015, a group of technology companies settled a class action filed on behalf of thousands of employees for about $415 million. The lawsuit alleged that the defendants violated antitrust laws by entering into “anti-poaching” agreements, by which they agreed not to solicit or hire each other’s employees. These types of agreements make it difficult, if not impossible, for workers to advance in their fields, and they also tend to drive wages downward. More recently, a putative class action that partly originated in New Jersey made similar allegations against two major electronics companies. Frost v. LG Corp., et al., No. 5:16-cv-05206, complaint (N.D. Cal., Nov. 8, 2016). A judge granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case in April 2017, based on pleading defects, but will allow the plaintiffs to make corrections in an amended complaint. The case remains a good example of how state and federal antitrust laws can affect employment.

The main federal antitrust statute is the Sherman Act, originally enacted by Congress in 1890 in an effort to address monopolistic practices across the country. It prohibits any “contract…in restraint of trade or commerce among the several states,” 15 U.S.C. § 1, and allows both civil and criminal penalties. The New Jersey Antitrust Act uses almost identical language to describe prohibited contracts. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 56:9-3. The attorneys general at the state and federal levels are empowered to investigate and prosecute anticompetitive practices, and both state and federal laws allow civil causes of action by aggrieved parties.

The Frost lawsuit is actually a consolidation of two lawsuits filed in California and New Jersey. It asserts claims on behalf of three classes of employees:  nationwide, in California, and in New Jersey. The two defendant employers are American subsidiaries of South Korean companies. Their parent companies are also named as defendants. The lead plaintiff for the New Jersey class worked for one of the defendants in Englewood Cliffs for about eight years, beginning in 2006.

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stock chartAccording to some analysts, New Jersey is experiencing a net loss of residents and businesses, which means it is also losing jobs. When a business decides to cease operations in an entire state, a significant amount of job loss is probably inevitable, but the state has enacted laws that offer some protection to workers in this type of situation. The NJ WARN Act, more officially known as the Millville Dallas Airmotive Plant Job Loss Notification Act of 2007, establishes procedures that many businesses must follow when they take certain actions that result in major job loss. This includes a detailed notification that must be provided to each affected worker. Employers that fail to provide the required notification may be liable for damages to their employees.

The NJ WARN Act generally applies to businesses that have operated in New Jersey for at least three years and that have 100 or more full-time employees. Their obligations under the statute are triggered by certain events, including a “mass layoff,” a “transfer of operations,” and a “termination of operations.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:21-1. The statute defines a “mass layoff” as a “reduction in force” that is not related to a transfer or termination of operations and that results in the termination of (1) at least 500 employees within a 30-day period, or (2) at least 50 employees when that number represents at least one-third of the company’s total full-time workforce. Id. A termination of operations occurs when the company voluntarily closes an entire facility, either permanently or temporarily. A transfer of operations involves moving a facility to another location.

If an employer conducts a mass layoff or a transfer or termination of operations that causes equivalent job loss, the NJ WARN Act requires it to provide a notification to each affected employee, along with severance pay “equal to one week of pay for each full year of employment.” Id. at § 34:21-2(b). The notification must state the number of employees losing jobs, an explanation of why the employer is undertaking these actions, a breakdown of the severance pay, statements of the employee’s legal rights, and information about comparable jobs available with the employer. Id. at § 34:21-3.

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defense lawyerThe U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to three consolidated cases addressing the enforceability of class action and collective action waivers in employment arbitration agreements. Many employment agreements include provisions stating that both employees and employers will submit any employment-related dispute to a neutral arbitrator. A waiver bars employees from filing or joining a class action related to their employment. The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq., appears to authorize this type of provision, but a waiver might violate the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. The Supreme Court has recently upheld class action waivers in consumer contracts, and it may have agreed to hear this case in order to resolve any uncertainty resulting from those rulings.

In a class action, a plaintiff or group of plaintiffs sues on behalf of a larger group of similarly situated persons. This allows people who lack the resources to file suit, or whose individual claims are too small to justify the expense of suing, to pool their claims into a single lawsuit. Federal law establishes four criteria for certifying a class:  (1) the class must be numerous enough to make individual lawsuits, or individual joinder of plaintiffs, impractical; (2) the class members must have common legal or factual questions; (3) the claims of the lead plaintiffs must be typical of the other class members; and (4) the lead plaintiffs must be able to “fairly and adequately” represent the class members and their interests. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a).

Arbitration is a method of alternative dispute resolution. Instead of filing suit, the parties submit their dispute to one or more arbitrators, who are usually legal professionals with knowledge of the subject matter at issue. The arbitrator will conduct a hearing, which might resemble a trial in many ways, and recommend an outcome. Employment contracts may require binding or non-binding arbitration. The results of binding arbitration are not subject to review by a court, absent evidence of misconduct by the arbitrator. A common criticism of arbitration is that the process tends to favor whomever is paying the arbitrator’s fees.

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A Day Without Immigrants - Long line of protestersThe past few months have seen numerous high-profile protests around the country, both in opposition to and support of the new administration in the White House. At least two major protests have called for nationwide strikes or walkouts. In February 2017, A Day Without Immigrants called attention to the significant role of immigrants in the nation’s workforce. This month, A Day Without a Woman did the same with regard to women in the workplace. Similar protests have occurred in this country and in countries around the world for many reasons across the political spectrum. It is not clear how many people participated in the recent events, but they appeared to have a noticeable impact. They also resulted in some participants losing their jobs specifically because of their participation, which raises the question of whether, and to what extent, state and federal employment laws protect this sort of activity. A quick review of a few statutes shows that no simple answer exists. For any individual, the answer may depend on their particular employer’s policies.

Antidiscrimination laws, like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), protect employees from adverse actions by their employers based on specified categories, such as race, sex, and national origin. The NJLAD provides much broader protections than Title VII, but neither specifically addresses political views or activities. An employer who terminates or otherwise penalizes an employee for participating in a strike like the ones mentioned above might not violate state or federal antidiscrimination laws. A claim could hypothetically be possible if the employer’s actions indicate bias based on a protected category. The two recent strikes deal specifically with the protected categories of national origin and sex. This sort of claim would probably be a long-shot without solid evidence of an employer’s bias, but it is a possibility.

Laws protecting employees’ right to engage in labor activities are likely to be a better option, but the amount of protection they offer is also not clear. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) states that workers have the right to engage in “concerted activities” aimed at collective bargaining or “mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157. Employers may not unreasonably interfere with employees who are exercising these rights, nor may they discriminate against employees who do so. It would be hard to make the case that events like A Day Without Immigrants have collective bargaining as their ultimate goal, but they do plausibly serve the purpose of “mutual aid or protection” for workers.
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weldingThe U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued a final rule, known as the “persuader rule,” in early 2016. The rule dealt with actions by employers, both direct and indirect, “to persuade employees about how to exercise their rights to union representation and collective bargaining.” 81 Fed. Reg. 15923, 15924 (Mar. 24, 2016). It marked a significant change from the agency’s previous interpretation of an employer’s obligation to disclose communications related to labor organizing activity. A court permanently enjoined implementation of the new rule in November, however, finding that the DOL exceeded its rulemaking authority. The old version of the rule, based on the old interpretation of the statute, remains in effect.

The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) of 1959, 29 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., requires employers to disclose various payments and communications made to labor organizations, employees, and others with regard to union organizing activities. For example, an employer must disclose payments made to an employee or a group of employees to induce them “to persuade other employees” with regard to “the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” Id. at § 433(a)(2). The statute might also require the disclosure of communications involving attorneys or consultants specifically involved in advising an employer about ongoing labor negotiations.

Section 203(c) of the LMRDA, id. at § 433(c), exempts certain communications from the disclosure requirement. The persuader rule determines how far this exemption applies. Under the previous interpretation of the persuader rule, disclosure was only required if a consultant communicated directly with employees. The DOL concluded that this “left a broad category of persuader activities unreported” and therefore “den[ied] employees important information” they might need to make an informed decision about union representation. 81 Fed. Reg. at 15924. It modified the persuader rule to include the disclosure of both “direct” and “indirect” activities aimed at “persuading” employees. See 29 C.F.R. § 406.2(a).

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Our economic system depends on the competition of individuals and businesses in a free market, subject to reasonable regulations. When one or more “persons”—a legal term that includes individuals and various types of businesses—take actions that make their segment of the market less competitive, they may be in violation of federal or state antitrust laws. These statutes prohibit employment practices, such as “wage-fixing” agreements among competing companies, that unfairly harm employees’ interests. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently issued a guidance document, entitled “Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals,” addressing the enforcement of federal antitrust laws. In addition to civil penalties, the DOJ has the authority to pursue criminal charges for anticompetitive practices in some situations. The guidance document advises human resources (HR) professionals to enact policies aimed at avoiding civil and criminal liability for their employers.employee

Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1 through 11, in 1890 in order to combat the formation of monopolies that could take over control of entire markets or commodities, such as oil or steel. When a single company has control over a particular product or service within a market, consumers typically suffer because of factors like the lack of incentive to keep prices at a reasonable level. Employees can also suffer when there is no other employer who has need of their skills. Federal laws and many state laws allow state regulators to take steps to prevent actions, such as mergers of two or more formerly competing businesses, that could lead to a monopoly.

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cough medicineFor most workers in the U.S., paid sick leave is a benefit conferred by their employer, solely based on the employer’s determination that it is a worthwhile investment. If an employer were to stop offering paid sick leave to its employees, they would have no recourse other than finding another job. No federal law requires paid sick leave, and only a handful of states—not including New Jersey or New York—have enacted laws mandating a minimum amount of paid sick leave. The news is not all dire, though. Thirteen cities in New Jersey have enacted their own paid sick leave laws. Morristown, New Jersey is the latest town to do so, although the mayor has reportedly delayed its implementation until early 2017. Employees of certain government contractors will soon benefit from a new Department of Labor (DOL) Final Rule, which takes effect at the end of November 2016.

Allowing workers to stay home due to an illness, without losing several days’ pay, seems like a sensible policy, at least when looking at society at large. Employees who cannot afford to lose the income may go into work despite being sick. This can spread illnesses like the flu, ultimately causing even bigger problems. While the Family Medical Leave Act allows unpaid leave for certain purposes, federal law makes no provision for paid sick leave. Only five states have paid sick leave laws:  California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Vermont. In a nationwide sense, it is generally up to individual employers to decide whether or not to offer it to their employees. On a solely individual level, an employer might not see the value of giving paid sick leave to its workers. Businesses may not like regulations, but sometimes they serve a very important purpose.

Morristown became the 13th New Jersey municipality to enact a paid sick leave law in September 2016. Ordinance O-35-2016 describes the numerous societal benefits of allowing employees to earn paid sick leave, including “reduc[ing] recovery time” and “reduc[ing] the likelihood of people spreading illness to other members of the workforce and to the public.” Employees earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours that they work, up to a maximum of 24 hours (three work days) in a calendar year for employers with fewer than 10 employees, and 40 hours (five days) for employers with 10 or more employees. Additional exceptions apply, depending on various circumstances.

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Times SquareEmployees in the U.S. have the right to organize themselves as a union or to join an existing labor union in order to negotiate with their employers regarding working conditions and various other features of employment. At the federal level, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., secures these rights and prohibits interference by employers. Laws vary from state to state, however, regarding whether union membership may be made mandatory. “Right-to-work” laws in many states allow employees to elect not to join the union, while other states allow employers and unions to enter into “union security agreements.” Neither New Jersey nor New York has right-to-work laws. A well-known restaurant in Manhattan’s Times Square offers a recent example of how labor organizing can work. Amid multiple complaints and allegations of poor working conditions, 50 restaurant employees recently announced that they had voted to form a union.

The NLRA protects workers’ rights “to self-organization,” to form their own labor organization or to join an existing one, to choose representatives to engage in collective bargaining with their employer, and to “engage in other concerted activities” directed toward these purposes. 29 U.S.C. § 157. Employers are prohibited from interfering with or restraining employees in the exercise of these rights. Id. at § 158(a)(1). The law also prohibits various coercive acts by employers and labor unions, and it protects the rights of workers engaged in strikes or other activities authorized by their union. It leaves certain matters, however, up to the states.

Right-to-work laws state that workers may not be required to join a union. The NLRA allows union security agreements between unions and employers, which may place certain obligations on employees. Federal law does not allow “closed shops,” in which the employer can only hire union members. “Union shops,” in which employees must join the union after being hired, are allowed under the NLRA but are prohibited by right-to-work laws.

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moneyIn late August 2016, the Governor of New Jersey vetoed a minimum wage bill passed by the state legislature in June. The bill, A15/S15, would have increased the minimum wage in this state to $10.10 per hour at the beginning of next year, with additional annual increases for at least three years. Failing to keep pace with the rising cost of living is a major criticism of minimum wage laws around the country. Many workers in New Jersey and throughout the country must already go to court to assert their rights against employers who do not pay them the minimum amount required by law. The governor cited the alleged impact of a minimum wage increase on New Jersey businesses, claiming that it would result in fewer jobs. The status quo, however, still leaves people unable to meet basic needs with a paycheck from a full-time job.

State minimum wage regulations set the minimum wage at the greatest of three amounts:

(1) the amount set by state law, which was most recently set at $7.15 per hour as of October 1, 2006, N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-56a4;
(2) the amount set by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which has been $7.25 per hour since July 24, 2010, 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(C); or
(3) $8.38 per hour, N.J.A.C. § 12:56-3.1.

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