New Jersey Legislative Update: Pay Equity Protection, Social Media and Employer Responses to Unemployment Insurance Requests for Information

By: Marion B. Cooper

August was a busy month for New Jersey lawmakers with Governor Christie signing two bills, one regarding pay equity and one concerning personal social media accounts that he had conditionally vetoed earlier, and a bill regarding the impact of an employer’s failure to respond to a request for information for purposes of unemployment insurance benefits.  As described below, each bill will impact an employer’s compliance obligations and should be appropriately integrated into management practices.

  • Assembly Bill No. 2648 (A-2648), signed by the Governor on August 29, 2013, is a pay equity protection measure amending the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) to bar employers from retaliating against employees who share information about the job title, occupational category or rate of compensation and other employment matters, or the gender, race or other protected characteristic of current or former co-workers when the inquiries are made to assist in investigating the possibility of unlawful discriminatory treatment in pay, compensation, bonuses, or benefits. It took effect upon enactment.

While the previously vetoed version of A-2468 would have protected those discussions under the State Conscientious Employee Protection Act, Governor Christie suggested that the amendment was more consistent with the underlying goals of the NJLAD, because that is the statute under which workplace discrimination claims are brought.  Governor Christie noted that “[t]oo often in our past, women have seen their incalculable contributions to the workplace insufficiently compensated.  We cannot allow that progress to succumb to ignorance.”

  • Assembly Bill No. 2878 (A-2878), also signed by the Governor on August 29, 2013, prohibits employers from requiring or requesting any employee or prospective employee to provide or disclose the user name or password or in any way provide the employer access to a personal account through the use of an electronic communications device.  A-2878 further prohibits employers from retaliating or discriminating an individual who has, or was about to:
    • Refuse to provide access to a personal social media account;
    • Participate in any complaint, investigation, proceeding or action concerning a violation of the act; or
    • Otherwise oppose a violation of the act.

Violations under the act are enforced through the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and violating employers could be subject to civil penalties up to a maximum of $1,000 for the first violation and $2,500 for each additional violation.  Governor Christie’s veto of the original version of the bill was based on a determination that it was overbroad and needed to provide for specific employer rights.

A key employer protection in A-2878 allows employers to investigate compliance with applicable laws, regulations or “prohibitions against work-related employee misconduct” when the employer receives specific information regarding an employee’s personal social media account, and also to investigate an employee’s actions related to the “unauthorized transfer of an employer’s proprietary information, confidential information or financial data to a personal account.”   The bill further clarifies that the employer is not prohibited from “viewing, accessing, or utilizing information about a current or prospective employee” that is available in the public domain.

New Jersey thus became the ninth State this year, and the twelfth State overall to enact legislation prohibiting employers from seeking or accessing current or prospective employees’ personal social media account information.  Federal legislation similar to these state social media account password protection laws has been introduced, including: the Social Networking Online Protection Act (HR-537) and the Password Protection Act of 2013 (HR-2077).

  • Senate Bill No. 2739 (S-2739), signed by the Governor on August 19, 2013, amends the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Law to ensure that employers promptly respond to Division of Unemployment and Temporary Disability Insurance (Division) requests for information about claims for unemployment benefits.  In accordance with this Bill, if the Division erroneously pays a benefit because the employer failed to respond in a “timely or adequate manner” to a Division request for information related to the claim and the employer has an established pattern of failing to respond to these requests, the Division is prohibited from relieving the employer’s account for the charged benefit payments.  A benefit payment is “erroneous” when it would not have been made but for the employer’s failure to make a “timely and adequate” response.   The “pattern of failing” is established when the employer repeatedly fails to respond to Division requests for information related to a claim for benefits, unless the number of failures is less than three or less than two percent of the number of Division requests, whichever is greater. 

The act does not specify what is considered “timely or adequate,” but pre-existing statutory language provides an employer with ten days after the Division request to respond before the Division relies entirely on other sources to make a determination of wages and time worked.  Employers who previously may have failed to respond because it might result in a denial of benefits to the claimant now have more of an incentive to comply.

FMLA Protected Leave Now Available To Same-Sex Spouses

By: Marion B. Cooper

United States Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez, recently issued an internal memorandum to department staff outlining the Department of Labor’s plan to issue guidance documents which will, among other things,  make protected leave available to same-sex couples under Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”)This action comes as the Department prepares to implement the Supreme Court’s recent decision in U.S. v. Windsor, which struck down the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex spouses.  Calling it a “historic step toward equality for all American families,” Secretary Perez noted that the Department of Labor will coordinate with other federal agencies to make these changes “as swiftly and smoothly as possible.”

Secretary Perez stated that guidance documents would be updated to remove references to DOMA and to “affirm the availability of spousal leave based on same-sex marriages under the FMLAThis change is of great consequence to same-sex spouses who previously were unable to access the job-protected leave provided under the FMLA.  Now, eligible same-sex spouses will be able to take FMLA leave for certain specified family and medical reasons, including caring for a spouse with a serious health condition, and generally will be returned to their original position or another position with equivalent pay, benefits and status.  The new interpretation reflected in the Department’s updated guidance documents will be effective immediately.

In the Department’s official blog, Modern Families and Worker Protections, Laura Fortman, the principal deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, announced on August 13, 2013 that revisions had already been made to various FMLA guidance documents to reflect the changes necessitated by U.S. v. Windsor.  Fortman clarified that the “changes are not regulatory, and they do not fundamentally change the FMLA.”  They merely expand the universe of employees who are eligible for FMLA benefits by including legally married same- sex couples.  The updated documents can be viewed at these links:

Although Secretary Perez did not specifically address the question, the updated guidance documents indicate that the Department only intends to expand FMLA benefits to same-sex spouses in the 13 states and the District of Columbia that have recognized same-sex marriage.  As an example, Fact Sheet#28F, Qualifying Reasons for Leave Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, defines “spouse” for purposes of FMLA leave as  “a husband or wife as defined or recognized under state law for purposes of marriage in the state where the employee resides, including “common law” marriage and same-sex marriage.”   In contrast, the Office of Personnel Management announced on its website that benefits will be extended to Federal employees and annuitants who have “legally married a spouse of the same sex, regardless of the employee’s or annuitant’s state of residency.”

As initial steps to implementing these changes, employers should inform or train human resources personnel regarding the availability of FMLA leave to eligible employees under the specified definition of spouse; review internal procedures and leave documentation to ensure compliance, and finally, review employee handbooks and policies to include provisions for same-sex couples where appropriate.

New Jersey Safe Act Provides Unpaid Leave For Victims Of Domestic Violence

By: Marion B. Cooper

On July 13, 2013, Governor Chris Christie signed the New Jersey Security and Financial Empowerment Act (New Jersey SAFE Act) into law.  Effective on October 1, 2013, the New Jersey SAFE Act, covering public and private employers with 25 or more employees, provides up to 20 days of unpaid leave in one 12-month period when an employee or their child, parent, spouse, domestic or civil union partner has been the victim of a domestic violence incident or a sexually violent offense and the employee has been employed by the employer for at least 12 months and 1,000 base hours during the 12-month period immediately preceding the leave.

Under the New Jersey SAFE Act, each incident of domestic violence or any sexually violent offense constitutes a separate offense for which the eligible employee may take leave, so long as the employee has not already exhausted the allotted 20 days for the 12-month period.  The unpaid leave may be taken intermittently in intervals of no less than one day, as needed for the employee or the employee’s family or household member to handle issues arising from the incident such as:

Seeking medical attention for, or recovering from the injures caused by the domestic or sexual violence;

Obtaining services from a victim services organization;

Obtaining psychological or other counseling;

Participating in safety planning, relocation or other activities to increase the safety of the employee or the
employee’s family or household member and to ensure economic security;

Seeking legal assistance to ensure the health and safety of the employee or the employee’s family or household member; or

Attending, participating in, or preparing for a court proceeding related to the incident of which the employee or the
employee’s family or household member was the victim.

An eligible employee may elect, or the employer may require, the employee to use any or all accrued paid time off during any part of the 20-day leave provided under the New Jersey SAFE Act.   If the employee’s request for leave under the New Jersey SAFE Act is also covered by the New Jersey Family Leave Act or the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, the leave must count simultaneously against the employee’s entitlement under each law.

Before taking leave under the New Jersey SAFE Act, the employee must give the employer written notice, if the necessity for the leave is foreseeable, as far in advance as reasonable and practical under the circumstances.  An employer may also require the employee to substantiate the domestic violence or sexually violent offense which is the basis for the leave.  If the employee provides one or more of the types of documentation listed in the Act such as a restraining order or a letter from the prosecutor, it will be deemed sufficient.

All documentation regarding the leave must be retained by the employer in strictest confidence unless the employee voluntarily authorizes disclosure or it is required by federal or State law, rule or regulation.

The employer must conspicuously display notice of employees’ rights and obligations under the New Jersey SAFE Act in a manner to be prescribed by the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, and must use “other appropriate means to keep its employees so informed.”  Neither the posting, nor guidance regarding what other appropriate means must be used has been issued.

The New Jersey SAFE Act prohibits discrimination, harassment and retaliation against employees who have exercised their rights under the Act.  Aggrieved individuals have a private right of action within one year of the alleged violation to bring suit in Superior Court for recovery of the fully array of damages available to a prevailing plaintiff in common law tort actions, including reinstatement, compensation for lost wages and benefits, an injunction to restrain continued violations and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.  In addition, the employer may be assessed a civil fine of $1,000 or up to $2,000 for a first violation, and up to $5,000 for any subsequent violations.

Updates regarding employers’ notice requirements and means to keep employees informed will follow when issued.

New York City Expected to Pass Expansive Paid Sick Leave Law

By: Lynne Anne Anderson

The New York City Council has reached a compromise that will enable it to pass a paid sick leave law.  Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg objects to the legislation, news outlets are virtually unanimous in predicting that the City Council has enough votes to override his veto.  While federal law does not require employers to provide paid sick leave, Connecticut and some cities (including San Francisco, Seattle and Portland) have adopted paid sick leave laws.  Other cities (including Philadelphia) are considering doing so.  In New York City, even employers that already provide paid sick leave will have to take a close look at the new legislation and reconcile their current sick leave policies with the city’s mandates.  For example, New York City’s proposed law includes anti-retaliation provisions that would prohibit employers from firing employees for using their paid sick leave.

What employers are covered by the proposed law and when would it go into effect?

Under the proposed New York City law, as of April 1, 2014, companies with 20 or more employees would have to provide at least five paid sick days a year.  The law would be extended to apply to companies with 15 or more employees as of October 1, 2015.   Earlier versions of the legislation had required nine paid sick days, so five days was part of the compromise lawmakers reached in response to small business owners’ very vocal objections.  The New York City law is not as expansive as some other city laws.  For example, paid leave obligations in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland apply to companies with as few as five employees.

Notably, the New York City law will also require companies of any size to provide five days of sick leave as of April 1, 2014, but the time off may be unpaid.

What employees would be eligible?

To be eligible for paid leave, employees working within the borders of New York City would have to be employed for at least 4 months.  The law applies to full-time and part-time workers, although seasonal workers and student interns would not be eligible.

Other details include that the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs would have enforcement authority and there is a safety net provision that would delay implementation of the law if New York City’s economy slows down.

Advocates of the legislation claim that the law will provide paid sick leave for one million workers.  It is clear that this law will have a significant impact on small businesses.  The Society for Human Resource Management reports that only 32% of small businesses (50 or less employees) currently offer paid sick leave, and an advocacy group, A Better Balance, reports that over 80% of restaurant workers and 60% of retail workers in New York City do not receive pay when they miss work due to sickness.  As noted above, this law will also impact larger employers to the extent that they do not already provide five days of paid sick leave or only offer benefits to full-time employees or employees employed for longer than four months.  And, as with any new law, it is important to track implementation to comply with notice requirements, both in terms of posting and adoption of compliant company policies prior to the April 2014 and October 2015 effective dates.

Editor’s Note:

On May 8, 2013, the New York City Council passed the Earned Sick Time Act by a 45-3 vote.  New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had vetoed the bill on June 7, 2013, but the New York City Council overrode the veto on June 27.   New York City now joins San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Portland, and the State of Connecticut to pass mandatory sick leave laws.

 

New Jersey Employers Required to Post and Distribute Notice of Gender Pay Equality

By: Marion B. Cooper

On September 21, 2012, New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie signed Assembly Bill No. 2647 (A-2647) into law, supplementing the New Jersey Equal Pay Act which will take effect on November 19, 2012, and applies to all New Jersey employers with 50 or more employees.  A-2647 imposes several new obligations on employers, who must conspicuously post the notification in an accessible and conspicuous place in English, Spanish and any other language spoken by  10% of the workforce within 30 days of the time the Commissioner first issues the form notice.

The notice must detail employees’ rights to be free of gender inequity or bias in pay, compensation, benefits or other terms and conditions of employment.  In addition, the notice must be given to new employees upon hire and to any employee upon request.  Employers must redistribute the notice annually and obtain a written acknowledgment that the employee has read and understood the notice.  Distribution of the notice may be made by paper or electronically via email or a website, “if the site is for the exclusive use of all workers, can be accessed by all workers, and the employer provides notice to the workers of its posting.”

However, the law does not require posting or distribution on the effective date, November 19, 2012, or even within 30 days of the effective date.  The posting and distribution requirements will not be triggered until the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development issues the notification by regulation, the notice has passed through the regulatory approval process and is published in the New Jersey Register.  This process will likely take several months.