New Jersey employment law protects workers in this state by requiring payment of a minimum wage and overtime, prohibiting discrimination and harassment, and setting standards for workplace safety, among many other measures. As with anything, there is always room for improvement. Recent developments in New Jersey’s warehousing industry may demonstrate an area where improvement is needed. E-commerce has vastly increased the demand for warehouse space and workers to operate fulfillment centers. New Jersey is reportedly home to over one billion square feet of warehouses, which employ tens of thousands of people. An incident at one fulfillment center in late 2018, which sent two dozen employees to the hospital, has led to demands for improvements in working conditions. A report from the labor organization Warehouse Workers Stand Up (WWSU) calls on New Jersey lawmakers to help push companies operating warehouse distribution centers to adopt a ten-point “code of conduct.”
The WWSU’s proposed code of conduct covers numerous areas of employment law, including wage and hour laws, workplace safety, medical leave, and labor organizing. State and federal laws address many of these areas to some extent, although many gaps and loopholes exist. According to the WWSU’s report, many distribution centers employ people on a temporary or part-time basis. Different definitions of “employee” in different statutes mean that not all legal protections may apply to people who do not have full-time, permanent employment, or who are employed in certain capacities. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), for example, protects employees’ right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining, but it defines “employee” in a way that might exclude some people, such as those considered to be an “independent contractor” or “supervisor.” 29 U.S.C. § 152(3).
In early December 2018, multiple employees at a distribution center in New Jersey were injured when a can of bear repellant, an aerosol product similar to pepper spray, fell off of a shelf. An automated machine reportedly punctured the can, causing its contents to disperse. About two dozen people went to the hospital, including one person who had to go to the intensive care unit. This incident appears to have been what led workers to rally in support of the WWSU’s proposed code of conduct.