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Articles Posted in New Jersey Labor Law

The coronavirus pandemic has hit New Jersey harder than most U.S. states, and the economy will surely take some time to recover. The New Jersey Legislature has passed multiple bills in recent months intended to help workers affected by the pandemic. Notable bills include one that modifies the state’s temporary disability insurance system and one that addresses retaliation by employers against quarantined workers. If you feel you may need or have had to take leave from work due to the coronavirus pandemic and have concerns regarding your employment status or benefits, please contact a New Jersey employment attorney as soon as possible.

State of Emergency

Several new laws make changes that only apply during a public health emergency. The governor first declared an emergency in relation to the coronavirus on March 9, 2020. A declaration of emergency expires after thirty days unless extended by the governor. He has extended the March 9 declaration twice so far, on April 7 and May 6.

Temporary Disability Insurance

The New Jersey Temporary Disability Benefits Law (TDBL) provides disability coverage for workers who are unable to work because of “an accident or sickness” that is not due to an on-the-job incident, and which is not otherwise covered by the state’s workers’ compensation law. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 43:21-29. It also allows “family temporary disability leave” for a worker who must care for a family member with a “serious health condition,” defined to include conditions requiring inpatient care or other ongoing medical care. Id. at §§ 43:21-27(o)(1), (s). Under ordinary circumstances, no benefits provided by the TDBL are payable for the first seven days of a disability period. Id. at § 43:21-39(a).
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New Jersey remains in a public health emergency because of the global coronavirus pandemic. “Stay at home” orders appear to have slowed the spread of the virus, but they have also led to widespread economic problems. S2304, a bill expanding earned sick leave (ESL) and family leave benefits in New Jersey, became law on March 25, 2020. The bill addresses the availability of these benefits during a state of emergency or when public health officials or healthcare providers have ordered someone into quarantine or isolation.

Public Health Emergency

The governor first declared a state of emergency on March 9, 2020. He extended the public health emergency on April 7, and again on May 6. A declaration gives the governor authority to direct resources towards dealing with the emergency. This can include ordering businesses to close and ordering individuals to remain at home.

New Jersey’s Earned Sick Leave and Family Leave Laws

The ESL law took effect in November 2018, six months after the governor signed the bill. It provides workers with one hour of paid sick leave for every thirty hours that they work, at the same rate of pay as if they were at work. Employees may carry up to forty unused hours over from one year to the next.

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The coronavirus and the illness that it causes, COVID-19, have made vast changes to workplaces in New Jersey, the U.S., and worldwide over the course of less than a month. Public health experts have recommended “social distancing” as a way to slow the spread of the virus while the healthcare system rushes to get ready. The governor of New Jersey has issued a series of executive orders (EOs) closing many “non-essential” businesses and instructing others to allow remote working whenever possible. The EOs direct businesses to follow public health guidelines in order to protect workers who must report to their workplaces. This raises important legal questions that have no clear answers yet.

In this environment of social distancing, what are employees’ rights if their employer requires them to come to work when their business is not “essential”? What if their employer will not allow them to work remotely, even though doing so would be feasible? What if an employer endangers employees’ health by failing to follow public health officials’ recommendations?

Executive Orders and the Effect on New Jersey Businesses

EO 104, signed on March 16, ordered certain businesses to close their facilities to the public, including gyms, movie theaters, and nightclubs. Restaurants could only remain open for take-out orders and food delivery. “Non-essential” retail businesses were ordered to cut their hours. Retail operations deemed “essential” include:
– Grocery stores;
– Pharmacies;
– Healthcare facilities; and
– Gas stations.
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American society often takes an odd view of sick leave. A common way for someone to demonstrate their dedication to their job is to say that they have “never taken a sick day.” The implication behind this claim is not necessarily that they never got sick, but rather that they continued showing up to work even if they were sick. Everyone gets sick at some point, though, whether it is a minor cold, a major flu, or something even worse. Some people might never take sick leave because they feel like they should not, while other people might not have the option of missing work. From an employee’s point of view, New Jersey employment laws are more generous than those of many states in this regard.

Showing up to work regardless of illness might seem like an admirable display of determination, but it could put one’s co-workers at risk of getting sick. This is especially true in early 2020, when COVID-19, also commonly known as the coronavirus, has led public health officials to advise people displaying certain symptoms to stay home or seek immediate medical attention. Unfortunately, not everyone can do this.

Many workers in the U.S. have little to no available sick leave, paid or unpaid. Even if they have the means to see a doctor, they might believe that they have no choice but to go to work. Workers in New Jersey need to know their rights under state and federal sick and medical leave laws, so that they can better understand their options if they need to isolate themselves.

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New Jersey passed significant legislation in 2019 taking on wage theft by employers. The new law provides not only civil and administrative penalties, but also criminal consequences for employers that fail to pay their employees what they are owed. A series of bills passed in early 2020 addresses New Jersey employee misclassification, a related issue that deprives employees of their legal rights. Misclassification can also cause underfunding of important state programs, including the unemployment and disability insurance funds. One of these bills amends the wage theft law to add new means of holding employers liable for violations of state employment tax laws due to misclassification. This new law does not provide employees with a cause of action, but it benefits them by allowing state regulators to ensure employers are paying their share of employment taxes.

Employee Misclassification

Employee misclassification effectively strips workers of legal protections. Multiple statutes at the federal, state, and local levels protect employees by, to name only a few, guaranteeing a minimum wage and overtime compensation, regulating workplace safety, and prohibiting workplace discrimination and harassment. Legal protections for independent contractors are limited to the rights enumerated in their contracts and the general principles of contract law. Some employers see an incentive to classify workers as independent contractors when they are actually employees, since they owe fewer legal duties to independent contractors.

Employers contribute to multiple programs that benefit employees through the payment of employment taxes. At the federal level, this includes a share of payroll taxes that go to the Social Security and Medicare programs. State employment taxes fund unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and workers’ compensation. Misclassification results in employers not contributing to these programs, potentially leaving them without adequate funding. Since independent contractors are considered “self-employed,” it can also result in misclassified workers having to shoulder their employers’ share of those taxes themselves.

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New Jersey labor laws protect workers’ rights to a minimum wage, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, a workplace free of discrimination and harassment, and other matters. These laws regulate the relationship between employers and employees. Unfortunately, some employers try to evade their responsibilities by classifying employees as independent contractors. Employee misclassification is a violation of state law. New Jersey employment law places most of the burden of proof on employers to establish that an individual is not an employee. Legislation signed by the Governor in January 2020 assesses penalties for misclassification and requires employers to post notices of workers’ rights. In late 2019, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (LWD) demanded almost $650 million in unpaid employment taxes and interest from a rideshare company that has frequently been the subject of misclassification complaints.

Employees in New Jersey are covered by a rather vast array of federal, state, and local employment laws. They cover issues ranging from wages and hours to workplace safety. Some statutes only apply to employers with a minimum number of employees, while others apply to all employers. Independent contractors are not covered by these laws. Their legal protections are largely limited to the terms of their contracts and contract law. Many statutes do not provide a particularly helpful definition of an “employee.” The federal Fair Labor Standards Act, for example, defines an employee as “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1).

State law fills in gaps left by federal statutes. In 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted a definition of “employee” known as the “ABC test,” based on §§ 43:21-19(i)(6)(A) through (C) of the New Jersey Revised Statutes. An individual is presumed to be an employee unless the employer can establish three elements:

1. The employer does not exercise control over how the individual performs their job, both in the text of the contract and in actual practice;
2. The individual’s job is outside the scope of the employer’s regular business, or the individual performs their job away from the employer’s business premises; and
3. The individual works in their own separate business or trade.

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Employers in New Jersey may no longer ask job applicants how much they made at their last job, thanks to a new law passed by the Legislature in June 2019 and signed by the Governor in July. The bill amends several provisions of New Jersey employment discrimination laws to prohibit employers from “screen[ing] a job applicant based on the applicant’s salary history.” Inquiries about salary history can offer employers a way around laws against pay discrimination, such as the federal Equal Pay Act (EPA). When an employer bases hiring or salary decisions on how much an applicant made at their previous job, it tends to perpetuate existing wage imbalances. As of December 2019, sixteen states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and multiple local governments have enacted laws prohibiting salary history inquiries to various degrees.

The EPA prohibits discrimination in pay on the basis of gender, meaning that employers must pay male and female employees the same for work that “requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility…under similar working conditions.” 29 U.S.C. § 206(d)(1). It makes exceptions for different rates of pay based on seniority, merit, “quantity or quality of production,” or “a differential based on any other factor other than sex.” Id. Bans on salary history inquiries are partly motivated by concerns that past salary could fit into that last category. The status quo in the United States in late 2019 is that multiple wage gaps exist. People can argue over what causes these gaps, but their existence is difficult to dispute. Employment decisions based on salary history, regardless of an employer’s intent, can serve to entrench the disparities.

State laws governing salary history inquiries vary widely in what they prohibit and allow. Alabama, for example, passed a law around the same time as New Jersey that bars employers from making an adverse employment decision based solely on an applicant’s refusal to provide information on their salary history. It does not expressly prohibit employers from asking for such information. California’s law, enacted in 2017, bars employers from asking, and goes much further. Employers in California may not “rely on the salary history information of an applicant for employment” in either hiring or salary decisions, unless the applicant voluntarily discloses the information.

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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.
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Organized labor is arguably responsible for many features of employment that are often taken for granted today. Union membership has decreased considerably over the past few decades for a variety of reasons. Employees in New Jersey are union members at a higher rate than the national average, but union members still only account for less than twenty percent of New Jersey’s workforce. Public sector unions tend to receive a great deal of media attention today, and the most popular historical images of union membership probably involve trades like manufacturing and mining. Recent news coverage, however, has pointed to itself as an important sector for union organizing. Newsrooms at print and digital publications around the country have elected to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining. While it is not clear if employees at any New Jersey-based publications have taken this step, it has happened at many publications that reach New Jersey readers.

New Jersey remains generally favorable to labor unions. Federal law protects workers’ rights to organize and engage in “concerted activities” related to organizing, and prohibits employers from interfering with those rights. See 29 U.S.C. §§ 157, 158. It does not, however, prevent states from enacting so-called “right-to-work” laws. At least twenty-six states, not including New Jersey, have enacted such laws. Right-to-work laws prohibit “union security clauses” in collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) between employers and labor unions. A union security clause requires all employees to contribute to the union, either by becoming a member or paying a fee. Without a union security agreement, employees who contribute nothing to the union still benefit from the union’s efforts.

Despite offering a relatively favorable environment for labor unions, not many New Jersey workers are union members. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, New Jersey had 630,000 union members in 2017. This accounted for 16.2 percent of all employees in the state. New York had 2,017,000 union members in 2017, or 23.8 percent. Both states saw a decline in union membership since 2007. New York’s number of union members fell by 38,000, while New Jersey’s fell by 118,000.
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The New Jersey minimum wage was increased on January 1, 2019 from $8.60 to $8.85 per hour. This is more than a dollar above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, but it is lower than numerous other states. Massachusetts, California, and Washington, for example, currently set their minimum at $12.00 per hour. New York’s state-level minimum wage is around $11.00 per hour. New Jersey’s governor has stated that he would like to see a $15 minimum wage statewide. A recent deal with state legislators has increased the likelihood of that happening, although the increase would be gradual. Seattle raised its minimum wage to $15 per hour several years ago, and some observers note that the dire predictions of critics have not materialized.

The U.S. Congress last raised the federal minimum wage in the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007. Pub. L. 110-28 § 8102. That bill raised the federal rate to $5.85 after sixty days, with two additional increases. It has remained at $7.25 per hour since July 2010. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1). New Jersey voters approved an amendment to the state constitution in 2013, which set the statewide minimum wage at $8.25 per hour starting on January 1, 2014. N.J. Const. Art. I, ¶ 23. It further directed the state to increase the minimum wage every year based on the increase in “the consumer price index for all urban wage earners and clerical workers (CPI-W) as calculated by the federal government.” Id. This process resulted in the $8.85 per hour rate that took effect at the beginning of January 2019. N.J.A.C. § 12:56-3.1(a).

A bill pending in the New Jersey Legislature, A15/S15, was reported out of both the Assembly and Senate Appropriations Committees in late January 2019. The the bill includes the CPI-W provisions of the 2013 constitutional amendment, but also sets increases in the minimum wage beginning in mid-2019. The minimum wage would increase by the greater of the amounts set by the bill or the increase in the CPI-W. The current rate of $8.85 per hour would increase to $10.00 per hour on July 1, 2019, and to $11.00 per hour on January 1, 2020. Each January 1 afterwards, the state minimum wage would increase by $1.00 until 2024, when it would be $15.00. If the U.S. Congress increases the federal minimum wage at any time to an amount greater than the state minimum wage rate, the federal rate would apply.
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