As the COVID-19 pandemic shows signs of winding down, and New Jersey lifts many of the restrictions that have been in place for over a year, employers across the state report that they cannot find enough workers for their businesses. Some employers, rather predictably, blame expanded unemployment benefits. That might be one possible explanation, but it alone does not explain the reported worker shortage. Many of the industries reporting problems finding enough employees, to be blunt, do not have the best track records when it comes to fair wages, workplace safety, and other things that workers should be able to expect from their employers. Federal and New Jersey employment laws guarantee various protections for workers, and the fact that people are not hurrying to return to certain workplaces might serve as a reminder that maintaining these legal protections is an ongoing struggle.
Workers’ Rights Under Federal and New Jersey Law
Statutes at the state and federal level guarantee many New Jersey workers a minimum wage. They also protect workers’ right to a workplace free of discrimination, harassment, and unreasonable danger.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) has set the federal minimum wage at $7.25 per hour since 2010. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(C). For tipped employees, which include many restaurant workers, employers must pay a base wage of $2.13 per hour. Id. at § 203(m)(2), 29 C.F.R. § 531.59.
New Jersey law sets a higher minimum wage than the FLSA. The rate increases on January 1 each year, until it reaches $15 per hour in 2024. It is currently $12 per hour, or $7.87 per hour for tipped employees. N.J.A.C. §§ 12:56-3.1, 12:56-3.5.
Discrimination and Harassment
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, and other factors. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 offers similar protections at the federal level.
Both statutes prohibit workplace sexual harassment. This includes demands for sexual activity as a condition of employment, and conduct that creates a hostile work environment based on sex. Restaurant workers often allege both kinds of sexual harassment by supervisors and managers.
This is an area where workers have rights, but are limited in their enforcement options. The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to provide a reasonably safe work environment. Without any provisions for private causes of action, there is little workers can do to enforce those rights.
Possible Causes of Worker Shortages in New Jersey
Recent media coverage of New Jersey’s worker shortage offers no shortage of accusations by employers that people would rather collect their extra $300 per week in unemployment benefits than come to work. Research by economists does not bear this out as the primary reason why restaurants and other businesses requiring extensive contact with the public are having difficulty finding workers.
Other possible causes, besides the largesse of unemployment benefits, might include:
– Low-paying service industry jobs that depend on tips;
– Uncertain school schedules for people who have been caring for children for the past year;
– Distrust of employers’ policies regarding masks and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID; and
– Competition from “gig economy” jobs like rideshare services, which provide workers with greater flexibility of scheduling.
The Resnick Law Group’s employment attorneys represent workers in New Jersey and New York who have endured unlawful workplace practices. To schedule a confidential consultation, please contact us today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.