Tag Archives: employment attorney

THE YEAR THAT (SORT OF) WASN’T: Five Lessons Employers Learned During the COVID-19 Pandemic and What They Mean for the Future

As a labor and employment lawyer, over the past year, I had both a front row view of the ways the COVID-19 pandemic shaped workplaces in a broad array of industries and the privilege of working with employers to tackle truly unprecedented issues.  With the milestone anniversary of the pandemic at hand, it is time to reflect on some of the lessons we can learn from this transformational experience.

Lesson 1: The Value of the Mission-Driven Employee

A common thread that ran through many of the often unique challenges businesses faced this past year is that the value individual employees contribute to an organization is both inestimable and not necessarily tied to salary grade.  Some of the lowest paid employees risked their wellbeing to remain on the frontlines, and their dedication and hard work opened employers’ eyes to the value these employees provide.  We have seen that dedicated employees can often find creative ways to solve problems.  We have also seen other employees struggle in this new environment for innumerable reasons, including more limited supervision, fewer support resources when working from home, limited adaptability and flexibility of the employee, and the challenges of balancing work and parenting responsibilities (which are more pronounced when children are attending school from home).

The one thing that has been universal is that mission-driven employees find a way to succeed, while employees who view work as a job often come up short.  From entry level to the c-suite, this dichotomy in attitude reinforces that employees who buy into the mission of the organization find ways to accomplish that mission.  Going forward, employers can learn from this equation and use it in all phases of employee relations, including recruitment, promotion, employee benefits and incentives, and workforce management to identify and develop employees who are mission-driven.  At the same time, employers can foster dedication and loyalty by treating employees fairly, showing them appreciation and respect, and fostering unity behind the organization’s mission. 

An interrelated factor is the importance of mental health.  We saw once valuable employees so overwhelmed by fear and anxiety that they became unable to focus on their jobs. This sobering experience gives employers a new perspective on and appreciation for the importance of paying attention to their employees’ mental health as much as their physical health. Employers who formerly recognized the need to provide their employees with health insurance benefits but who disclaimed responsibility for tending to their employees’ mental health have awakened to the truth that mental health issues can be one of the most serious drains on employee productivity and company morale.

Lesson 2: The Office is not the Only Place Employees can Work

While the steady rise of technological advances already made it possible for employees to work from home efficiently, many employers have been resistant to allowing work remote, fearing loss in productivity and dilution of corporate cohesion and culture.  When the pandemic forced many office workers to work from home on a prolonged basis, employers learned their fears were, in many instances, overstated.  Dedicated and loyal employees (see Lesson 1) have worked as efficiently, if not more efficiently, outside of the office, finding new and creative ways to get the job done. 

An important takeaway from the new prevalence of remote work is that, even within the same position, employers have witnessed varying degrees of success from employee to employee working remotely.  Although some employees cannot concentrate at home, others can focus much better without the distraction of co-workers and the fatigue of commuting.  Employers should take note of this fact and look for ways to allow employees to work in the environment where they are most productive and successful.  Employers who are overly rigid about where workers perform their jobs risk impairing productivity, morale, dedication, and, ultimately, retention and recruitment.

Lesson 3: Reports of the Death of the Office are Premature

Although employees are working productively outside of the office, on-site work still holds an important place in successful businesses.  From training new employees to setting a corporate culture, working in an office creates important synergies within an organization.  When employees are together, their ideas cross-pollinate, producing better ideas. Employees can work better as a team, and motivate and inspire one another when they interact with each other face-to-face in an office setting.  Remote work has taken a toll on these beneficial activities that we have not replaced despite all the technology at our fingertips. Although a Zoom call can be a valuable tool and is often a necessity in today’s forced remote work arrangements, it is sometimes a poor substitute for a face-to-face meeting and is seldom as effective in building teamwork and creating and enhancing a business’s culture as a live social event.

Successful businesses will look for a balance between isolated workplaces where some employees thrive and the cohesion that comes from working in an office.  Organizations suffer without collaboration and, when their employees work only in silos, they seldom develop the unity of mission that leads to success.  In addition, employees often find job satisfaction and inspiration in their interactions with their colleagues. It is usually easier to walk next door to ask your colleague a question or chat with her about an issue than to make a phone call or exchange emails or text messages. What’s more, the results of the face-to-face meeting are usually more productive, not to mention, more satisfying than the remote conversation. Each organization will have to strike the right balance of office and remote work, but we have learned that technology alone is not a substitute for in-person interactions.

Lesson 4: Travel is Less Essential than we Thought

Although there is no substitute for meeting in person with a customer, there is also no doubt that corporate travel is a significant expense and disrupter of productivity.  Corporate travel can be invaluable in promoting in-person interactions that help build key relationships both within and outside the organization, but all too often in the past it was done without even thinking about whether there was a cheaper, less time-consuming, but just as effective alternative.  The era of corporate travel is far from dead, but the pandemic taught us that it is not as vital as we once thought.  We can use technology to train, gather information, work collaboratively, and develop relationships.  Again, technology is not a substitute for in-person interactions, but we now know there are viable alternatives to planes, trains, and automobiles that may help increase employee efficiency and boost employee morale. 

Additionally, for certain positions, finding talented employees who are willing to travel extensively can be a real challenge.  Employers who can find ways to minimize the personal sacrifices employees make to travel will find themselves rewarded with loyal employees who are satisfied with their jobs.   

Lesson 5: Adapt or Die

Perhaps one of the most important lessons from the pandemic is that employers must be prepared to adapt.  Those who are unable or unwilling to do so will suffer the adverse consequences. Employees who have found a new work-life balance working remotely will not want to give it up, just as clients who have grown comfortable with video meetings will not want to pay for travel that does not provide sufficient value.  We are in a transitional period and employees are becoming more assertive and clear-headed about what they do and do not want out of their employment.  That trend started when the millennial generation entered the workforce, but it has become more pronounced across all generations due to the pandemic.

Employers looking to recruit and retain top talent will need to meet the expectations of these employees or risk losing them to competitors who offer more flexibility.

Questions? Let me know.

Can I Fire an Employee Who Stormed the Capitol?

As all eyes were focused on the U.S. Capitol Building and insurgency on January 6th, back home, employers now face questions about whether they can discipline employees who participated in the siege or other off-duty conduct that contravenes the employer’s world view. The answers to these complex questions depend both on state law, the terms of employment, whether the conduct was lawful, and whether the conduct is otherwise protected. 

Broadly, non-government employees who are employed on an “at-will basis” can be terminated for any reason or for no reason, unless they are otherwise protected by law.  For example, as most employers know, employees cannot be terminated or disciplined if the employment action is discrimination against someone in a protected class and/or retaliation for engaging in protected conduct. By implication, this means “at will” employees can be disciplined or terminated for engaging in lawful off-duty conduct unless that conduct is otherwise protected. For instance, New Jersey law protects certain employees who use tobacco and cannabis off duty, but it does not protect employees who engage in the type of insurgency we saw on January 6, 2021, even if the employee acted lawfully. This means that a New Jersey employer can terminate or take action against an employee for participating in the siege on the Capitol, but cannot terminate an employee who smokes marijuana when they are not at work (provided the employee is not under the influence or otherwise impaired while on duty and the use does not impair an employer’s federal contract). Colorado, on the other hand, has a broader off-duty conduct statute that protects a range of lawful off-duty activity, meaning it is unlikely that employers in Colorado can terminate an employee who participated in the siege on the Capitol in a lawful manner. These are just two very broad examples but employers need to keep in mind that many states have a variety of off-duty conduct protections.

Employees who are employed pursuant to employment contracts, union bargaining agreements, and governmental entities may have specific rules that impose a higher standard for discipline or termination. For example, many union contracts restrict employers from disciplining employees for anything other than just cause arising from the employee’s conduct at work. n a unionized workplace it is likely an employer could not terminate or reprimand an employee who participated in the siege on the Capitol and in a lawful manner.

Employers should also keep in mind that the National Labor Relations Act protects employees who engage in protected concerted activities, whether in person or online, and employees who express support for (or opposition to) unions. These protections, among other things, offer protections to employees who desire to form or support a union. 

Savvy Employer Takeaways

In most instances, private employers can take actions against employees who engage in lawful off-duty conduct that the employer finds offensive, unless that conduct is otherwise protected by law or doing so would violate a the employee’s employment contract. Nonetheless, each situation requires an individual analysis of applicable law, the terms of employment, whether the conduct was lawful, and whether the conduct is otherwise protected. Employers must also weigh how such an action, or failure to take action, will influence the culture and productivity of their organization. 

Questions? Contact Adam E. Gersh

Employers’ COVID Update: To Mandate Or Not To Mandate?

Employers' COVID Update: To Mandate Or Not To Mandate?

Employers are growing accustomed to facing unprecedented decisions in every phase of this pandemic. As with many of the other situations employers have confronted over the past several months, whether to require employees to get the COVID vaccine as a condition of working on site presents novel issues that differ from mandates for the flu or other approved vaccines. 

Before we get into the specifics of the COVID vaccine, it is important to note, generally, employers are permitted to mandate employees are up to date on vaccinations in the interest of maintaining health and safety in the workplace.  Employers who opt to mandate vaccinations must also make reasonable accommodations for employees who cannot be vaccinated due to certain health conditions or deeply held religious beliefs. Mandatory vaccine programs must follow carefully coordinated protocols to comply with anti-discrimination laws and mitigate risks to employers arising from potential bias and retaliation claims. These steps include developing a system that limits pre-screening requirements to avoid conducting a medical examination, evaluating the risks of an employee’s opt-out, and determining whether alternate work assignments are available. 

In addition to these general rules, the COVID vaccine adds another layer of complication because it is not currently FDA-approved. Unlike a mandatory flu vaccination program, a COVID vaccine mandate requires an employee to receive a vaccine that is only available to the public under an Emergency Use Authorization, a less stringent standard than full FDA approval. As a result, employers who impose vaccine mandates before FDA approval open themselves up to a range of potential liabilities. In particular, employers may put themselves at risk if they terminate employees or refuse to hire candidates who raise public health concerns about the vaccine or a mandatory vaccination program, when the FDA has not approved its use. 

Additionally, current polling suggests up to 35% of the U.S. population may be unwilling to be vaccinated for COVID under the current circumstances, and certain workers are not authorized to receive it (e.g., workers under the age of the applicable Emergency Use Authorization for a specific vaccine formulation).  Those operational impediments to implementation of a mandatory vaccination program might hinder recruitment and retention efforts, and, on top of the legal risks described above, pose additional challenges for employers who want to adopt a COVID vaccine mandate.

Savvy employer takeaway:  For now, employers should, at a minimum, conduct vaccine education programs, encourage vaccination of employees, and, where possible, facilitate vaccination.  Employers who are considering implementing a vaccine mandate should do so only after careful consideration and consultation with counsel and after adopting protocols for vaccination.

The attorneys at Flaster Greenberg are following developments related to the COVID-19 Pandemic and formed a response team and to work with businesses to keep them up-to-date on developments that impact their business. If you have any questions on the information contained in this alert, please feel free to reach out to Adam Gersh, or any member of Flaster Greenberg’s Labor & Employment Practice Group

2019 Law At Work – Year In Review

New Year 2020 Loading Bar ConceptThey say the only thing in life that is constant is change, and we certainly saw that in 2019.  This was a big year for change in employment law as legislators, courts, and regulators, shaped the workplace to reflect societal changes.  The changes we saw included new requirements that address continued fallout from the #MeToo movement, concerns about wage distribution and equity, and balancing the rights of employers and unions.  Coupling these legal changes with competitive pressures due to labor shortages in certain industries, the stakes are higher than ever for employers.  We are seeing rapid change in the workplace and now is not the time fall behind.  In case you missed it, here are some issues that we brought to employers this year:

New 2020 Overtime Rule Means Employers Must Reevaluate Which Employees Are Overtime Eligible 

As you may recall, the U.S. Department of Labor released a Final Rule which was to go into effect on December 1, 2016, but, due to a court-issued injunction, followed by change of administration, it never did.  Now, we have an updated version that goes into effect on January 1, 2020.  Although the proposals leading up to these new rules garnered a lot of ink, the new rules make some changes that were not expected and maintain the status quo in areas that were expected to change. The DOL says the increase in salary thresholds will boost wages for 1.3 million U.S. workers. More here.

What Employers Need to Know About New Jersey’s Tough New Wage Theft Law 

On August 6, 2019, New Jersey amended its Wage and Hour Law and adopted the new Wage Theft Act (WTA), creating one of the toughest wage and hour enforcement laws in the country.  This law puts a high burden on employers and imposes significantly increased liability for employers who fail to pay wages owed, including potential jail time.

Click here to read more about what this means for employers and what employers should do to protect themselves from liability under the WTA.

New Jersey Prohibits Employers From Asking Prospective Employees About Their Salary Histories  

Beginning in January, employers will no longer be able to screen job applicants based on their wage or salary history, or inquire about their historical salary, compensation and benefits. However, a prospective employee may still voluntarily provide salary information. The bill doesn’t go into effect until January 25th, but employers should be preparing to amend their recruitment processes before it is enacted.

Practically, this law means employers will need to rely on measures other than a candidate’s salary history in setting compensation, including internal pay policies and market-based analysis. Click here to learn more.

SCOTUS Rules Requirement to File Charge Before Suing Under Title VII is Nonjurisdictional: Employers Must Raise Defense Timely 

The main takeaway from the opinion named in this legal alert is that employers faced with violations of Title VII must be careful to promptly raise the defense, when available, that the employee failed to file a charge with the EEOC within the allotted time period. In many Circuit Courts of Appeal, including the Third Circuit, this has long been the law, while in other Circuits, employers could raise this defense at any time. Now, all employers must raise it timely. Employers and their counsel should be careful to do so.

If you are facing any complaints under Title VII and/or any state equivalents, click here to read about this case in more detail.

New Jersey Creates Employment Protections for Medical Cannabis Patients and Providers

In addition to the range of court decisions that shape how employers treat employees who use medical cannabis, in July, New Jersey’s legislature weighed in with new requirements. Now, no matter how an employer ultimately chooses to treat employees and applicants who use medical cannabis lawfully under the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act, employers need to amend their drug screening programs and hiring processes to ensure that they are in compliance with this law. Employers also need to consider whether they will accept a valid medical explanation as a basis to disregard a positive test, especially in light of recent court rulings that may create liability for employers who take adverse action against employees and applicants who use medical cannabis in accordance with state law. Click here to learn more.

New Jersey Requires Pre-Tax Transportation Fringe Benefits 

The federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 eliminated a federal tax deduction for employers which had allowed them to deduct the cost of providing qualified transportation benefits to employees (thereby removing the tax incentive for employers to do so). In response, earlier this summer New Jersey enacted “An Act Concerning Pre-Tax Transportation Fringe Benefits” requiring all New Jersey employers with 20 or more employees to offer employees the opportunity to set aside wages on a pre-tax basis for the purchase of qualifying transportation services, such as transit passes and commuter highway vehicle travel. Click here to learn more about what this means for employers, including next steps and how to ensure your company is in compliance.

What Employers Need To Know: New Jersey’s Appellate Division Issues Historic Ruling On Medical Marijuana Users’ Rights in the Workplace

New Jersey employers need to be mindful that they no longer have a free pass to take adverse employment actions against employees and candidates solely because they use medical marijuana; those affected by such decisions will be emboldened by this new case, and their lawyers will be confident that a lawsuit challenging the adverse actions is more likely to survive a motion to dismiss at the beginning of the case. As the law in New Jersey now stands, employers are not required to accommodate medical marijuana use, but there is now an increased risk if they refuse. Additionally, various bills have been proposed and are being considered by the New Jersey legislature, which, if adopted, may expand employee rights in this area of the law.

As of right now, employers remain free to take adverse action if an employee shows any sign of impairment from use of medical marijuana, or, for that matter, any other drug, legal or not. More here.

Medical Cannabis Goes to Work 

Employers who take action against a candidate or employee based on a positive result for cannabis when the employee has a valid medical authorization and no evidence of impairment should be prepared for a fight.  Employees and their lawyers are looking for these cases in many states to try to change the law. Employers need to decide if screening out medical cannabis users is worth the risk of a potentially expensive court battle. More here.

Unions High on Cannabis 

As businesses across the country look to capitalize on the “green rush” from states’ expanded medical and adult use cannabis laws, unions are also eager to take advantage of the opportunities presented by this burgeoning, and quickly maturing, industry.  For instance, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has formed a cannabis-focused division and is actively representing cannabis workers in many states and seeking to expand to others.  These unions may also get a boost from legislative action in certain states.  Under New Jersey’s proposed cannabis expansion law, for example, licensee applicants who have entered into a labor peace agreement or a collective bargaining agreement receive preference in the license competition.  Expect unions to seek to represent workers in cannabis-related construction, retail, farming, cultivation, security, and processing.

Employers operating in and/or servicing the cannabis industry should consider and plan for the potential impact of labor unions in their industry.

Walmart Takes a Seat in California 

Earlier this year, Walmart reportedly agreed to pay $65 million to settle a case brought on behalf of nearly 100,000 current and former California cashiers who claimed the company violated their rights under a state law dating back to 1911 when it failed to provide them with seating.  The workers claimed Walmart, which denied any wrongdoing, breached its duty to make seating available “when the nature of the work reasonably permits.” This case is a friendly reminder that employers need to look carefully at their duty to offer reasonable accommodations to employees and to engage in an interactive process to make sure that the employer can justify any denied accommodation. More here.

What New Jersey’s New Law On Employment Contracts Means for Employers: Are Non-Disclosure and Arbitration Provisions Out? 

On March 18, 2019, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a new law, which, among other things, bars employers from requiring employees to sign or enforcing employment contracts that require employees to agree to waive certain rights or remedies and bars agreements that conceal details relating to discrimination claims. Click here for a checklist of what employers need to know, including what this law prohibits and applies to in the workplace.

Questions? Let me know.

Medical Cannabis Goes to Work

marijuana for medicinal purpose

In the latest salvo in an evolving legal issue, a federal court in Arizona ruled against Walmart in a recent lawsuit for terminating an employee who possessed a valid medical marijuana card after a drug test of the worker came back positive.  On the issue of cannabis use by employees, employers are having increasing difficulty reconciling their duty to make reasonable accommodations for employees suffering from disabilities with their drug screening policies.  Employers can and should take action to prevent impairment at work.   But how should an employer in a state where medical cannabis is legal handle an employee who tests positive in a drug screen but produces a valid authorization for use of medical cannabis?  To date, with certain exceptions, most courts have permitted an employer to refuse to hire a candidate or to enforce discipline against an employee who tests positive for cannabis, despite a valid authorization to use it for medical purposes. However, employees and others are challenging that norm regularly on the state and federal level.  Stay tuned.

Savvy employer takeaways: Employers who take action against a candidate or employee based on a positive result for cannabis when the employee has a valid medical authorization and no evidence of impairment should be prepared for a fight.  Employees and their lawyers are looking for these cases in many states to try to change the law. Employers need to decide if screening out medical cannabis users is worth the risk of a potentially expensive court battle.  

Questions? Let me know.

What Employers Need To Know: New Jersey’s Appellate Division Issues Historic Ruling On Medical Marijuana Users’ Rights in the Workplace

Marijuana Medical PrescriptionEver since the use of properly prescribed medical marijuana became legal in New Jersey, Courts have grappled with reconciling state and federal laws protecting employees from disability discrimination, and employers’ rights to maintain workplaces free of drug use. In simple terms, New Jersey law permits the use of medical marijuana, which is illegal under federal law. With limited exceptions, the decisions in these cases have come down in favor of employers’ right to enforce workplace drug rules. Generally, courts have permitted employers to discipline, terminate, or refuse to hire employees who use medical marijuana, even if there is no evidence of use or impairment in the workplace.

This week, New Jersey’s Appellate Division joined the minority of courts that have found an employee may be able to state a disability discrimination claim against an employer who takes an adverse employment action due to the employee’s use of medical marijuana.

What Happened?

In 2015, the employee, a funeral director, was diagnosed with cancer and was prescribed and used medical marijuana as authorized by New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Act as part of his treatment. In 2016, the employee was in an auto accident while working and he was taken by ambulance to a hospital. The employee advised hospital staff he was authorized to use medical marijuana. The treating doctor responded that “it was clear [the employee] was not under the influence of marijuana [and, thus, his marijuana use was not a cause of the accident], and therefore no blood tests were required.”

While the employee recuperated, his father took his medical prescription and marijuana license to his son’s supervisor and explained what had happened and why the hospital had not given a drug test. Later that day, the employer called and spoke to the employee’s father to advise that a blood test was required before the employee could return to work.

Later that evening, the employee went to a facility to take a urine and breathalyzer test; however, the results of those tests were not provided to the employer and were not part of the case record.

The next day, the employee returned to the funeral home, not as an employee, but because a close friend’s family member had died. While there, he and his supervisor spoke briefly about his job status. His supervisor said he had not heard from “corporate” but did not see how it would be a problem since the employee had a prescription for his marijuana use. The employee told the supervisor, “I only take it when I am home, not at work because I don’t want to jeopardize my license for what I have worked so hard for.”

The employee eventually returned to work, but, shortly after his return, his supervisor advised him that “corporate” was unable to “handle” his marijuana use and that his employment was “being terminated because they found drugs in your system”, though no test had actually been provided to the employer. In a subsequent letter, the company told the employee it had terminated him not because of his drug use, but because he failed to disclose his use of medication that might adversely affect his ability to perform his job duties. According to a company policy, “employees must advise their immediate supervisor if they are taking any medication that may adversely affect their ability to perform assigned duties safely.”

The employee brought an action alleging he had been a victim of disability discrimination.

What did the Courts decide?

The trial court dismissed the employee’s claims, finding that New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Act “does not contain employment-related protections for licensed users of medical marijuana.” The employee appealed.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of New Jersey’s Appellate Division reversed the dismissal in a unanimous decision. The Appellate Division acknowledged that the Compassionate Use Act unambiguously states it does not “require . . . an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.” Nevertheless, the appellate panel found that the New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination might require such an accommodation. Although the Compassionate Use Act does not make illegal an employer’s adverse action against an employee for medical marijuana use, by the same token, the Appellate Division stated it does not immunize an employer’s conduct that might otherwise have been a violation of the Law Against Discrimination. For this reason, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s dismissal and permitted the case to proceed.

What do employers need to know?

At the outset, it is important to understand that the Appellate Division did not rule that this employee had been a victim of disability discrimination. In fact, the Court expressly recognized that the case was at the earliest stages, and the employer had pled potentially valid defenses.  The Court ruled only that the case could not be dismissed on its face.

Although this precedent is now binding on state trial courts in New Jersey, it is far from settled law, and may well be subject to an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court. However, New Jersey employers need to be mindful that they no longer have a free pass to take adverse employment actions against employees and candidates solely because they use medical marijuana; those affected by such decisions will be emboldened by this new case, and their lawyers will be confident that a lawsuit challenging the adverse actions is more likely to survive a motion to dismiss at the beginning of the case. As the law in New Jersey now stands, employers are not required to accommodate medical marijuana use, but there is now an increased risk if they refuse. Additionally, various bills have been proposed and are being considered by the New Jersey legislature, which, if adopted, may expand employee rights in this area of the law.

In other words, stay tuned, because we have certainly not heard the last word on this topic. With that said, employers remain free to take adverse action if an employee shows any sign of impairment from use of medical marijuana, or, for that matter, any other drug, legal or not.

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If you have any questions about this legal alert or if you run across a related issue in your workplace, please feel free to contact Adam Gersh or any other member of Flaster Greenberg’s Labor & Employment Department.

Walmart Takes a Seat in California

walmart.jpg

Walmart reportedly agreed to pay $65 million to settle a case brought on behalf of nearly 100,000 current and former California cashiers who claimed the company violated their rights under a state law dating back to 1911 when it failed to provide them with seating.  The workers claimed Walmart, which denied any wrongdoing, breached its duty to make seating available “when the nature of the work reasonably permits.”

Walmart claimed that the nature of the cashier job did not reasonably permit seating, because placing stools or chairs at the store’s cash registers would pose a safety risk and hinder productivity. However, Walmart had a policy of offering stools to cashiers with medical conditions or disabilities, and store managers had the discretion to provide stools to cashiers on a case-by-case basis.

In a court filing, Walmart and counsel for the cashiers said the settlement, if approved, would be the largest ever under California’s unique Private Attorney General Act, which allows workers to sue their employers on behalf of the state and keep a portion of any award.

Curiously, other major retailers in California faced similar lawsuits, but Walmart did not act proactively to address this issue.  Even putting aside the anticipated benefit of improved employee relations resulting from voluntary compliance, with the benefit of hindsight, one has to wonder if the cost of compliance, even if it were to result in reduced productivity, would have been less than the cost to settle.

Savvy employer takeaways: Employers need to look carefully at their duty to offer reasonable accommodations to employees and to engage in an interactive process to make sure that the employer can justify any denied accommodation.

Questions? Let me know.

What New Jersey’s New Law On Employment Contracts Means for Employers: Are Non-Disclosure and Arbitration Provisions Out?

Law should know concept, The lawyer explained to the client to plan the case in court.

On March 18, 2019, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a new law, which, among other things, bars employers from requiring employees to sign or enforcing employment contracts that require employees to agree to waive certain rights or remedies and bars agreements that conceal details relating to discrimination claims.

Here’s what employers need to know:

  • Any provision in an employment contract that waives or limits any substantive or procedural right or remedy relating to a claim of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment will now be deemed against public policy and unenforceable;
  • No right or remedy under New Jersey’s “Law Against Discrimination,” or “any other statute or case law” shall be prospectively waived;
  • A provision in any employment contract or agreement that has the purpose or effect of concealing the details relating to a claim of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment shall be deemed against public policy and unenforceable;
  • For unionized work forces, this law does not restrict agreements to waive rights contained in collective bargaining agreements, but it does extend its prohibition to clauses designed to conceal details of a discrimination claim from unionized employees;
  • Attempting to enforce an agreement that is unenforceable under this law will give employees a private right of action to sue in court and the right to recover their attorney’s fees and costs of suit if they prevail;
  • The law protects employees from retaliation for refusing to enter into an agreement that violates their rights under this new law;
  • The law does not restrict an employer’s right to impose and enforce restrictions on the use of the employer’s confidential and proprietary information other than with respect to the details of discrimination claims;
  • The law does not expressly prohibit confidentiality provisions in settlement agreements meant to prevent disclosure of the amount of a settlement;
  • The law does not require disclosure; rather it leaves the choice in the hands of the individuals involved; and
  • The law took effect immediately and applies to all new contracts and agreements and existing contracts that are renewed, modified, or amended going forward.

Although the law is aimed primarily at prospective waivers of rights and clauses concealing the details of discrimination claims, the full scope of this law’s applicability will become clear only after it has been interpreted by the courts.  For example, one of the most significant open questions is whether New Jersey courts will deem mandatory arbitration provisions in employment agreements unenforceable as to discrimination claims and, if they do, whether the Federal Arbitration Act will, in turn, be deemed to preempt such a limitation on the enforcement of arbitration clauses.  Another important question is whether courts will construe this law to bar confidentiality provisions in settlement agreements that restrict employees from disclosing the terms of the settlement.

As we wait for the courts to resolve these and other open questions, employers should proceed thoughtfully when seeking confidentiality in connection with a claim of discrimination.  A precisely drafted confidentiality agreement or policy might be desirable in some situations, such as to preserve the integrity of an ongoing investigation, but employers need to be mindful of this law and understand the limitations and potential consequences of requiring confidentiality and/or taking disciplinary action when confidentiality is breached.  Employers relying on mandatory arbitration provisions should also consider the impact of this law and consult their counsel in evaluating whether to exclude discrimination claims from arbitration.

If you have any questions about this legal alert or if you run across a related issue in your workplace, please feel free to contact Adam Gersh or any other member of Flaster Greenberg’s Labor & Employment Department.

U.S. Dept. of Labor Makes Its Move

Employment attorney adam gersh

As long-time readers of this blog may recall, since 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor  has been trying to update its Fair Labor Standards Act  regulations to qualify more employees for overtime pay. For basic exemptions, meaning those that are not industry-dependent such as the administrative, executive and professional exemptions, employers may generally classify as exempt from overtime pay only employees who meet both a duties test and a salary test.  Since 2004, federal law allowed employers to designate salaried workers who earn at least $455/week (the equivalent of $23,660/year) and meet certain “white collar exemption” duties-test requirements as exempt from overtime.  This month, the DOL issued a proposed rule to increase that salary exemption to $679/week (equivalent to $35,308/year).  If adopted, salaried employees who meet an applicable duties test and earn more than $455/week but less than $679/week will no longer be exempt from overtime under the basic exemptions.  Importantly, the DOL proposed rule will allow employers to use nondiscretionary bonuses (for example incentive bonuses tied to productivity or profitability) and incentive payments (including commissions) that are paid at least annually to satisfy up to 10 percent of the salary test.  The DOL is also proposing to increase the exemption that applies to highly compensated employees.  Currently, salaried employees who earn at least $100,000/year in salary are exempt from overtime regardless of whether they satisfy the applicable duties test.  Under the proposed rule, the highly compensated employee salary threshold will increase to $147,414/year, meaning employees paid less than that threshold amount will be subject to a duties test or other exemption.  The proposed rule does not seek a change to any of the duties tests for the basic exemptions.

Savvy employer takeaways: Employers need to evaluate their payroll to identify salaried employees who meet the applicable duties test but may no longer be exempt and assess whether increasing the employee’s salary or making the employee overtime eligible makes more sense.  Employers also need to consider applicable state law, which may be more restrictive than the exemptions permitted under the FLSA.

Questions? Let me know.

Severance Agreement Requirements for Older Workers

During a layoff or non-voluntary reduction in force, the topic of how much time employers need to give employees to consider severance packages and what disclosures must be made creates considerable confusion in the media, with much being made of employers’ supposed failure to make required disclosures (see example). Here is the deal: if employers are subject to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) (generally, private employers with 20 or more employees), and ask employees who are 40 years of age or older to release ADEA claims in exchange for a severance package that is part of a termination, then they must abide by specific regulations. Those regulations are meant as safeguards for employees protected under the Older Worker Benefit Protection Act (“OWBPA”) which amended the ADEA. That means covered employers may need to give employees up to 21 days to consider the severance offer, or 45 days in the case of a layoff of more than one employee, and a seven-day period after signing to revoke the release of the ADEA/OWBPA claims. Also, employers have a duty to disclose the age and title of the workers who are chosen for layoff and the selection criteria. The OWBPA has additional requirements and there are other best practices an employer’s counsel can and should use when drafting a release to help guard against challenges, so it is always best to consult an attorney familiar with these types of matters so that the employer gets the broad release they are seeking in exchange for severance. Employers who are not covered by the ADEA and employers who are conducting a layoff of employees who are not protected by the ADEA do not have to rigidly adhere to these requirements. In the case of a separation that is not part of a reduction in force, (for instance, a termination for cause) the employer may not need to abide by these rules either. Even if the ADEA/OWBPA rules do not apply, employers are wise to give employees a reasonable period of time to consider a severance package to help protect against arguments that the waiver of claims should be unenforceable because of coercion or other reasons.

Savvy employer takeaways: Employers should know what is and what is not required to make their separation agreements and releases enforceable and should use reasonable means to give employees enough time to thoughtfully consider them.

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