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By passing and signing into law the New Jersey Equal Pay Act (EPA), our state legislature and Governor Murphy made clear that unequal pay practices based on a person’s gender, race, national origin, disability or other protected class characteristic, for employees performing same or similar work, will not be tolerated in New Jersey. A powerful remedy found in the EPA allows an aggrieved employee to seek back pay damages for discriminatory pay practices going back 6-years!

The passage of the EPA meant that the statute of limitations for claims based on discriminatory pay was expanded from 2-years under the existing New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) to a period of 6-years. Specifically, this  look-back provision of the EPA found at  N.J.S.A. 10:5-12A, , states that, “…liability shall accrue and an aggrieved person may obtain relief for back pay for the entire period of time, except not more than six years, in which the violation with regard to discrimination in compensation or in the financial terms or conditions of employment has been continuous, if the violation continues to occur within the statute of limitations…” (emphasis added).

A plain reading of the EPA makes clear that a victimized employee is permitted to recover damages for 6-years of unequal pay so long as it is shown to the satisfaction of a court that the complained of unequal pay practices continued to take place one or more times after the EPA took effect on July 1, 2018. Despite the apparent clarity of the EPA, some employers sought to challenge this 6-year claw back period arguing that by giving effect to the 6-year statute of limitation as of its effective date would mean the law was being given a manifestly unfair retrospective application. Retrospective application of a new law or rule depends on whether there has been a departure from existing law. State v. G.E.P., 458 N.J. Super. 436, 444-445 (App. Div. 2019). If there is a departure from exiting a law, the new law or rule is only given prospective effect. Id.  A new rule or law exists if “‘it breaks new ground or imposes a new obligation ….  [or] if the result was not dictated by precedent existing at the time the defendant’s conviction became final.'” Id. quoting State v. Lark,  117 N.J. 331, 339 (1989) (quoting Teague v. Lane,  489 U.S. 288, 301 (1989)).

The unemployment rate in the United States has soared to 14.7%, the highest since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and is expected to continue to increase. In just the past few weeks alone, more than 1 million people have filed unemployment claims in New Jersey. In response to this pandemic caused economic crisis, the United States Congress created the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), a loan program originating from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. PPP is designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their employees on payroll. Under PPP, loans granted by the Small Business Administration (SBA) to businesses will be forgiven if all employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities.

More specifically, PPP requires the employer to pay out at least 75% of the monies loaned in payroll. Because of this, many employers believe they can recall furloughed employees back to work at only 75% of the employees’ prior wage. This is very pleasant news for workers who while on unemployment have been receiving supplemental CARES Act unemployment insurance stimulus monies of $600.00 per week together with traditional unemployment insurance benefits. The maximum unemployment insurance benefit rate in New Jersey is currently $713.00 per week. This means many in New Jersey are collecting $1,313.00 per week (this comes to a yearly wage rate of $68,276) while home on unemployment. It is fair to state that this is likely more money than many of these workers have ever earned in wages during their adult life. Against this backdrop, consider the reaction of these same unemployed workers when notified they must return to work and accept a 25% pay cut because their employer who just received their PPP loan monies has no financial means other than the PPP loan to make payroll. Consequently, many furloughed employees called back to work face the ugly prospect of not only having to give up their traditional unemployment insurance benefits plus the $600 in weekly stimulus monies they’ve been receiving, but also must now endure a 25% cut in pay upon returning to work. Such a horrifying turn of events would leave an affected New Jersey worker to wonder whether they can refuse to return to work under such circumstance and continue to receive his/her unemployment benefits.  As is often the case, the answer depends on the controlling facts.

Generally, an individual will be disqualified from benefits if he or she fails to accept suitable work. N.J.A.C. 12:17-11.5(a). However, suitability of work in terms of wages means 80% of the individual’s average weekly wage, including the value of the individual’s benefits, during the base year of pay. Id. Moreover, no work may be deemed suitable, and an individual will not be disqualified for benefits because of his or her refusal to accept work if the wages, hours, or other conditions of work offered are substantially less favorable than those prevailing for similar work in the labor market area. N.J.A.C. 12:17-11.5(b).

As discussed in Mashel Law’s last blog posting, when a worker stricken with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), or likely exposed to same, needs to take time off to recover from the effects of the virus or to quarantine themselves from spreading it to family and coworkers, he or she may find job protections under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), federal Family and Medical Leave Act, the New Jersey Family Leave Act and the New Jersey Paid Sick Leave Act.  Adding to this arsenal of legal relief against an employer who chooses not to provide a worker with medical leave in such a circumstance is the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s (“NJDOL”) recent adoption of temporary emergency new rules to be found at N.J.A.C. 12:70 which will codify New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s Executive Order No. 103 (2020) a/k/a the New Jersey COVID 19 Anti-Retaliation Law. These new rules prohibit an employer from terminating or otherwise penalizing an employee for requesting or taking time off from work based on the written or electronically transmitted recommendation of a medical professional licensed in New Jersey stating the employee needs time off for a specified period of time because the employee has, or is likely to have, COVID-19 or any other infectious disease, which may infect others in the workplace.

Proposed new rule N.J.A.C. 12:70-1.3 states that upon the expiration of a period of protected leave, an employee must be restored to the position the employee held immediately prior to the start of the protected leave, with no reduction in seniority, status, employment benefits, pay, or other terms and conditions of employment.  Additionally, this new section states that if the employee’s position has been filled, the employer must reinstate the employee returning from protected leave to an equivalent position of like seniority, status, employment benefits, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment.

Proposed new rule N.J.A.C. 12:70-1.4 prohibits an employer from discharging or in any way retaliating against or penalizing any employee because the employee requests or takes protected leave. Concurrently, the rule also addresses situations where failure of an employer not to reinstate an employee would not be deemed retaliatory if: (1) the employer conducts a reduction in force that would have affected the employee had that person been at work; or (2) the employee would have been impacted by the good faith operation of a bona fide layoff and recall system, including a system under a collective bargaining agreement that would not entitle the employee to reinstatement to the former or an equivalent position.  The remedies available for a violation of the New Jersey COVID 19 Anti-Retaliation Law is limited to the commencement of an administrative action before the NJDOL seeking reinstatement to the same or equivalent position.  A potential fine of up to $2,500 can also be assessed against a violating employer.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads its fear and pestilence throughout our communities, it is important for New Jersey workers to be aware there are many employment laws available to protect their jobs should they need time off from work because they or a family member becomes sick from the virus. This article will discuss job protections provided by New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the American With Disabilities Act, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, the New Jersey Family Leave Act, and New Jersey’s Paid Sick Leave Act.

Protections Provided By the New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) and the federal American With Disabilities Act (ADA)

An employee suffering the temporary disabling effects of a virus induced disability may find protection under the “reasonable accommodation” requirements of the New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) and the federal American With Disabilities Act (ADA). Failla v. City of Passaic, 146 F.3d. 149 (3rd Cir 1998); Clowes v. Terminix Int’l, Inc., 109 N.J. 575 (1988).

As this blog previously informed, back on April 24, 2018, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act (the EPA). The EPA prohibits an employer from paying an employee who is deemed a member of a class protected under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (the LAD) less than what it pays an employee who is not a member of that LAD-protected class who performs  substantially similar work. Protected class characteristics under the EPA remain the same as they are  under the LAD, that is, it is against the law to treat someone hostilely, unfairly or differently because of their, “race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, affectional or sexual orientation, etc.” N.J.S.A., 10:5-12(a). This article will discuss the official enforcement guidance recently issued by the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights addressing the nature and scope of the EPA.

The EPA expands the remedies available to a victim of pay discrimination. Prior to the passage of the EPA, the LAD already prohibited employers from discriminating “in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment” based on many protected characteristics. Historically under the LAD, a person protected under the LAD could recover up to two years of back pay for a successful pay discrimination case. Now under the EPA, an employee who establishes pay discrimination can recover up to six years of back pay if the discrimination was continuous, and the most recent violation occurred within the LAD’s two-year statute of limitations. The EPA also makes clear that a violation of the LAD occurs each time an employee is “affected by application of a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice,” including each time an employee receives a paycheck. N.J.S.A. ,10:5-12(a).

The EPA requires equal pay for substantially similar work.  The EPA prohibits an employer from paying any employee “who is a member of a protected class at a rate of compensation, including benefits, which is less than the rate paid by the employer to employees who are not members of the protected class for substantially similar work, when viewed as a composite of skill, effort and responsibility.” N.J.S.A., 10:5-12(t). The EPA specifies that “[c]omparisons of wage rates shall be based on wage rates in all of an employer’s operations or facilities.” Id. It also prevents employers from reducing anyone’s compensation to cure a violation of the Equal Pay Act. Id.

In 2014, the New Jersey Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act (“NJPWFA”) was signed into law to strengthen protections afforded pregnant employees. Under the NJPWFA, employers must provide pregnant workers reasonable accommodations that would allow them to continue working in their positions. The NJPWFA forbids employers from treating pregnant workers in a “manner less favorable than the treatment of other persons not affected by pregnancy.” N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(s). However, the statute does not require employers to afford pregnant employees with the same reasonable accommodations it gives to nonpregnant injured workers similar in their ability or inability to work.

The NJPWFA provides examples of reasonable accommodations, “such as…temporary transfers to less strenuous or hazardous work.” This means that if a pregnant worker requested a temporary transfer to a light-duty position made available to a similarly situated nonpregnant injured worker, then the pregnant employee should be entitled to such an accommodation under the NJPWFA. Our New Jersey Appellate Division recently addressed this very issue in Delanoy v. Twp. of Ocean, 2020 N.J. Super. LEXIS 1, *2 (Decided January 3, 2020)

In Delanoy, plaintiff, a pregnant police officer, notified her employer of her doctor’s order prohibiting her from performing certain essential patrol officer functions (e.g. carrying a gun) during the later stages of  her pregnancy, and in turn recommended she be removed from patrol duty and transferred to a “light-duty” position during such time. The employer police department (the “Department”) assigned plaintiff to a non-patrol position pursuant to its “Maternity Assignment Standard Operating Procedure” (‘Maternity SOP’)…which allows pregnant officers to work a maternity assignment, but on the condition that the officer use all her accumulated paid leave time e.g., vacation, personal, and holiday time) before going on that different assignment.” Id. at *3. The Department also maintained an almost identical “Light-Duty SOP” for nonpregnant injured officers, but unlike the Maternity SOP, it expressly granted the Chief of Police authority to waive the paid leave time requirement. When the Department refused to waive the paid leave requirement for plaintiff’s transfer as it did for those receiving Light-Duty SOP transfers, plaintiff filed a failure to accommodate discrimination claim against them under the NJPWFA. The Department argued that plaintiff’s transfer to a fundamentally different assignment did not constitute an accommodation as defined by the LAD because plaintiff was not entitled to a reasonable accommodation since none existed that would allow her to continue performing the essential functions of a patrol officer while pregnant.

Winter brings the onset of flu season. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the flu, short for influenza, is a contagious respiratory illness that effects on average 8% of the population every flu season, or between 9.2 million and 35.6 million flu-related illnesses each year in the United States. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine. Most employers not in the healthcare field do not require employees to receive compulsory vaccines of any kind, including those for the flu. However, because healthcare employees are likely to be in contact with patients with compromised immune systems, healthcare providers often require their employees to submit to mandatory vaccinations, including forced flu shots. Refusing to do so has cost many healthcare workers their jobs. For example, in November 2017, Minnesota-based Essentia Health fired 69 employees who refused to get the flu vaccine, and in 2012, Cincinnati-based TriHealth fired 150 employees for not getting the flu shot

Terminating an employee when they refuse a flu shot on religious grounds (or because of illness or disability) may give rise to a claim of unlawful discrimination in violation of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD). The LAD prohibits employers from “discharg[ing]” or “discriminat[ing] against [an employee] in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment” due to, among other reasons, the employee’s religion. N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(a); see also El-Sioufi v. St. Peter’s Univ. Hosp., 382 N.J. Super. 145, 167 (App. Div. 2005). Under LAD an employer may accommodate sincerely held religious practices that may conflict with workplace rules, so long as the religious practices does not impose an undue hardship. Id.

Few reported court cases in New Jersey have been found addressing the refusal on nonreligious secular grounds to comply with a company’s compulsory flu vaccine policy. One case found is Valent v. Board of Review, Dept. of Labor, 436 N.J. Super. 41 (App. Div. 2014), where nurse Valent, an employee of Hackettstown Community Hospital (“HCH”), refused to take a flu vaccine for purely secular and personal reasons. Valent did not allege a medical or religious reason, which were the only exemptions permitted under HCH’s flu vaccination directive.  Id. at 44. Despite Valent agreeing to wear a mask during flu season, HCH proceeded to terminate her employment based on Valent’s refusal to take a flu shot. Thereafter, Valent applied for state unemployment insurance benefits, and HCH contested her application claiming Valent’s refusal to take a flu shot was an act of misconduct disqualifying her from receiving full benefits. The Appellate Division disagreed with HCH by concluding that Valent was not disqualified from unemployment benefits because she did not commit any misconduct under the law.  The appellate court held that Valent was within her rights to refuse to be vaccinated on purely secular reasons and was not required to show she qualified for a religion-based exemption.  Id. at 48.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) allows eligible employees to take up to twelve (12) workweeks of leave in any twelve-month period if a “serious health condition . . . makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position of such employee.” 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D). Therefore, it is unlawful for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise any right” that the FMLA affords. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1). However, for an employee to invoke their right to FMLA leave, he or she must first show they provided their employer with legally sufficient notice of their need for FMLA leave. Sarnowski v. Air Brooke Limousine, Inc., 510 F.3d 398, 401 (3d Cir. 2007). Furthermore, while “[t]he regulations provide some guidance as to what sort of notice is sufficient[,] [i]t is clear that an employee need not give his employer a formal written request for anticipated leave.” Id. at 402. “[T]he employee need not use any magic words… [only] reasonably adequate information under the circumstances to understand that the employee seeks leave under the FMLA.” Id.; 29 C.F.R. § 825.302(c); See also Browning v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 178 F.3d 1043, 1049 (8th Cir. 1999) (employees don’t need to specifically mention FMLA leave, only that leave is needed or may be needed).

Recently, the United States District Court of New Jersey in Cipully v. Lacey Twp. Sch. Dist., 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 206442, (Decided Nov. 27, 2019), was presented with the question of whether an employee is entitled to FMLA benefits if they inform their employer of their serious health condition, but never explicitly request or state a need for time off, but rather continue to report to work. In Cipully, plaintiff was a school district employee who gave her supervisor advance notice that she was scheduled for spine surgery and would need some time off for the surgery and to convalesce. Her supervisor permitted Cipully to take leave “so long as [she] return[s] before school starts.” Even though her doctor did not release her to return to work by the time school started, Cipully returned any way, claiming she felt intimidated by her employer to do so.

After returning to work, Cipully informed her employer on numerous occasions that she was still in pain and that her doctor had not approved her return to work. Id. at *2.  However, she never made another request to take off from work or stated that she needed or may need to take time off from work because of her back condition. Soon after, Cipully’s employment was terminated for alleged “poor performance and inappropriate conduct.” Cipully sued the Lacey Twp. Board of Education (LBOE) alleging, amongst others, that her firing was in retaliation for her attempting to take FMLA leave. The LBOE immediately moved to dismiss her complaint arguing, “that because the Complaint contains no allegations that Plaintiff unequivocally requested and was denied FMLA leave, Plaintiff’s allegations are insufficient to establish proper notice of her intention to take such leave.” Id. at *4.

New Jersey’s whistleblowing law is known as the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 et seq. (“CEPA”).  To prove a CEPA case, an employee must show that because they disclosed, objected, and/or or refused to participate in activities engaged in by their employer or their coworker(s) that they reasonably believed to be a violation of law, were fraudulent or were contrary to public policy, they suffered an adverse employment action.  CEPA defines an adverse employment action, i.e., to be a “discharge, suspension or demotion of an employee, or other adverse employment action taken against an employee in the terms and conditions of employment.” N.J.S.A. 34:19-2(e). Although our courts in New Jersey recognize that retaliatory action can take the form of “many separate but relatively minor instances of behavior directed against an employee that may not be actionable individually but that combine to make up a pattern of retaliatory conduct.” Green v. Jersey City Bd. of Educ., 177 N.J. 434, 447 (2003), the question of whether the issuance of poor performance evaluations may be viewed as an adverse employment action under CEPA is not so clear.

The courts in New Jersey did not always consider an employee who received poor performance evaluations to have suffered retaliation under CEPA.  See Cokus v. Bristol Myers Squibb Co., 362 N.J. Super. 366 (2002) (finding negative performance evaluations were not an adverse employment action where plaintiff was told her job was safe). However, for repeated negative performance evaluations to qualify as an adverse employment action under CEPA, our historically an employee to either 1) prove that the evaluation(s) were used as the direct basis for their termination, suspension, demotion or reduction in pay/benefits; or 2) show that the evaluation(s) was so harsh, unjust, and offensive that it caused them to suffer severe physical or psychological symptoms which forced them to take a leave of absence or resign. Id.; See also  Green v. Jersey City Bd. of Educ., 177 N.J. 434 (2003); Donelson v. DuPont Chambers Works, 206 N.J. 243 (2011)

Recently, however, the Unites District Court of New Jersey in Goode v. Camden City Sch. Dist., U.S. Dist. 2019 LEXIS 203303 (November 22, 2019), held that negative performance reviews alone may be enough to constitute an adverse employment action under CEPA. In Goode, the plaintiffs were teachers who sued their school district, as well as their respective individual principals, for violations of CEPA and other statutes. They alleged that the superintendent implemented a policy to use a new evaluation system as pretext to pressure teachers over the age of forty (40) to retire. Id. at *4. Under the new evaluation method, superintendents were required to forward tenure charges of inefficiency to the Commissioner of Education if they received consecutive annual teacher performance evaluations with scores of “partially effective” or “ineffective.” The teacher as then subject to being terminated, suspended, demoted, or receive a deduction in pay/benefits if the Commissioner sustained the tenure charges.

In New Jersey, the difference between being classified by an employer as an employee as opposed to being classified as an independent contractor can make a world of difference regarding the scope of a person’s legal rights. Unlike independent contractors whose rights are established by mutually agreed terms contained in a contract, those who qualify for employment status are entitled by operation of law to a host of benefits and rights not available to an independent contractor, including, but not limited to, unemployment compensation benefits, temporary disability benefits, workers compensation benefits, and wage and hour rights. See generally for example New Jersey’s: Unemployment Compensation Law, N.J.S.A. 43:21-1 et. seq.; Temporary Disability Benefits Law, N.J.S.A. 43:21-25 et. seq.; Workers Compensation Laws, N.J.S.A., 34:15-1, et. seq., Wage and Hour Law, N.J.S.A. 34:11-56a et. seq. and Prevailing Wage Act, N.J.S.A. 34:11-56.25 et. seq. Therefore, it is of paramount importance for workers to qualify as an employee under state law in order to receive these benefits.

Under New Jersey’s current law, individuals will be considered independent contractors if (1) free from control or direction over the performance of services; (2) they provide a service that is either outside the usual course of that employer’s business or the service is performed outside the employer’s places of business; or (3) the individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business. This law, found at N.J.S.A., 43:21-1 to 24.4, deems individuals eligible for unemployment compensation benefits unless all of the criteria of the so-called “ABC test” set forth in N.J.S.A. 43:21-19(i)(6)(A),(B),(C) is satisfied. All three parts of the test must be met for a person to be disqualified and the failure to establish any one of the three elements renders the claimant eligible for benefits. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v Board of Review, 397 N.J. Super. 309 (App. Div. 2007).

For example, as the law stands now, an entertainer employed by a hardware store to perform and sing for its customers at their annual holiday party would be considered an independent contractor. Similarly, if a fast food burger restaurant hired a caterer to provide food and services for all their parties outside of its restaurants, that caterer would be considered an independent contractor. This is true even if the caterer was too busy catering these parties to be able to provide services to any other customer. Moreover, if a bank frequently hires an IT specialist to conduct software updates and repairs specifically relating to its buildings’ security systems but could provide the same services to other types of businesses, that individual would be considered an independent contractor.

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