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More than a year before #MeToo, a Select Task Force was created by President Obama to examine the problem of sexual harassment at the workplace. The Select Task Force consisted of a select group of outside experts who analyzed the causes and effects of workplace harassment and made recommendations what should be done to prevent it. The Select Task Force’s Report of the Co-Chairs of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace was published in 2016 before the #MeToo movement.

The mission of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace was to determine the extent to which harassment impacts employees of various industries nationwide, as well as how best to mediate this behavior. The Task Force operated in conjunction with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and its eighteen (18) members include academics, lawyers, EEOC representatives, and other experts from all across the country.  The Select Task Force’s June 2016 Report outlined that analyzed the different factors that increase the risk of workplace harassment, how workplace harassment impacts employees and productivity, and how workplaces can both address and prevent the occurrence of harassment in their office. The eruption of movements have revealed the continuing epidemic of sexual harassment in the workplace which has caused an renewed interest in the report.

The report revealed that Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received approximately 30,000 charges of workplace harassment in 2015 alone. This statistic is even more shocking in light of the Select Task Force’s finding that only 25% of the victims report the harassment to their employers. In fact, reporting harassment to the employer is the least common response to harassment.  Victims of sexual harassment fear disbelief, inaction, or blatant retaliation by their superiors or the harasser.

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The Third Circuit has reversed a trial court’s decision that dismissed a sexual harassment lawsuit because the plaintiff employee never complained directly to her employer. The decision is causing employment attorneys across the country to question the continued viability of the Faragher-Ellerth defense, which permits employers to avoid liability for sexual harassment where an employee fails to make a formal complaint about sexual harassment directly to the employer.

In the case of Sheri Minarsky v. Susquehanna County and Thomas Yadlosky, Jr., the employee began her employment as a part-time secretary with the Susquehanna County Department of Veterans Affairs from September, 2009. The employee claimed that she had been sexually harassed by her supervisor throughout her employment starting from the very beginning. The sexual harassment included her supervisor attempting to kiss her on the lips, massaging her shoulders while she was at her computer and approaching her from behind and pulling her against him. The employee also claimed that the supervisor would often question her whereabouts during her lunch hour and would also call her at home under the pretense of a work-related inquiry only to then ask personal questions unrelated to work.  The supervisor also sent sexually explicit messages through email to the employee.

While the employee never complained to her employer about her claims of sexual harassment in fear of retaliation, the employer was aware of the supervisor’s inappropriate behavior toward other women, which resulted in two verbal reprimands. Other employees also raised concerns that the supervisor would attempt to kiss employees under the mistletoe during Christmas time.

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The United States has historically been plagued by systematic employment discrimination based on protected characteristics that often take the form of unjustifiable wage disparity. The Diane B. Allen New Jersey Equal Pay Act attempts to curb this practice in New Jersey by placing strict regulations in situations where employers pay their employees disparate wages, and imposing large penalties on employers who violate this statute. Governor Phil Murphy signed the bill into law on April 24, 2018 in hopes of creating a work environment in the state that fosters pay equity. It takes effect, today, July 1, 2018.

The Equal Pay Act amends the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to strengthen protections against discrimination by specifically prohibiting unfair pay practices based on gender, race, or other characteristics. It restricts employers from paying employees who are members of protected classes reduced wages in comparison to non-protected class employees by making it unlawful for women to be paid less than their male counterparts simply because of their gender. An employer may utilize differing compensation rates only pursuant to:

  • A seniority or merit system
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The United States has been slowly progressing towards equity when it comes to employment policies that outlaw gender, disability, and other types of discrimination. Despite this advancement, there are a few areas that have shown reluctance to moving forward. One such industry is that of professional sports.  As a result of the nature of sports related occupations, issues such as disability, gender, and pregnancy discrimination have proven difficult to overcome. Athletes who are considering starting a family must contemplate the reactions of their sponsors, fans, and coaches, and they fear the cancelling of sponsorships as well as receiving less playing time from their coaches. Fortunately, a recent situation arose in women’s professional tennis that forced the United States Tennis Association to quickly consider changes to pregnancy and discrimination policies.

Arguably the greatest female tennis player in history, Serena Williams has won twenty-three Grand Slam singles titles since 1999, as well as four Olympic gold medals and seventy-two total career singles titles. Williams recently took a leave of absence from competing as she became pregnant and gave birth to her child, Olympia, in September of 2017. She also unfortunately experienced severe complications from this pregnancy that added to the physical strain of giving birth. Despite her record-breaking athletic history, she returned from pregnancy leave to find that she was unseeded in the French Open this year. In professional tennis, seeds are awarded to the highest ranked players of the year, and unseeded players encounter additional obstacles in the tournament, such as facing highly competitive players very early on in the tournament. For such a successful and powerful athlete as Williams, not being awarded a seeded spot following her pregnancy was not only disrespectful, but also viewed as discriminatory.

As a result of the backlash that the actions of the French Open have received, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) has announced that they plan to alter their seeding procedure in order to take into account additional factors that may have influenced an athlete’s ranking, which will include pregnancy and the complications that arise from the condition. Wimbledon already reserves and occasionally exercises the right to alter computer calculated seeding if they feel there are additional factors (such as pregnancy) that should be taken into consideration. In support of Wimbledon’s practice, the President and Chairwoman of USTA, Katrina Adams, explained that players should not be penalized for exercising their rights to start a family, and that the new US Open policy will help the sport to achieve greater equality and strike down discriminatory practices. Adams compared the French Open’s actions to the business environment, stating that forcing a player to return from maternity leave to a lower ranked position would be the same as having a business executive return to an entry level position. If this happened in any company in the United States, the employer would be guilty of pregnancy discrimination. Why is this not the case with the Women’s Tennis Association?

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As reported by Asbury Park Press, a Holmdel High School student is claiming that school officials prohibited her from coming on to the stage to receive her high school diploma during last week’s graduation ceremony.  The incident has sparked outrage from some in the community concerning the school’s lack of planning and communication to accommodate the student’s ability to come onto the stage with her wheelchair.  To their credit, school officials  fully accepted blame and have apologized to the student for what it has referred to as a significant mistake.  This unfortunate incident is an example of the profound impact that a failure to provide necessary accommodations to a disabled person can have in his or her life experiences.

Individuals who suffer from disabilities face significant obstacles throughout their lives, which include often being excluded from certain activities and other life events.  Both federal and state laws, including the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination were enacted to prohibit certain forms of discrimination in employment, schools and in other public places of accommodation.  These anti-discrimination disability laws are designed to provide disabled employees the assistance they need in order to be employed, receive an education and be properly accommodated in the public domain.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination specifically identifies schools as a place of public accommodation.  A place of public accommodation may not discriminate against disabled persons and must provide reasonable accommodations unless it is shown that the requested or needed accommodation would impose an undue hardship.  If a disabled student needs or requests a reasonable accommodation, the school must initiate an interactive process to search and determine what appropriate reasonable accommodation is necessary. This interactive process requires the school to take some initiative and identify the potential reasonable accommodations that could be adopted to overcome the student’s precise limitations resulting from the disability. The law requires all parties to act in good faith to explore potential accommodations.  A school that obstructs or delays the interactive process or fails to communicate with the other party will be viewed as not acting in good faith.  When this occurs, the courts will attempt to isolate the cause of the breakdown and then assign responsibility.

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Two recent New Jersey court cases further demonstrate that unlawful workplace harassment can occur in any industry, at any level, targeting employees of all demographics. Despite this fact, some workplaces are more susceptible to experiencing harassment than others. One such industry is the restaurant and hospitality industry. According to a recent study conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, more restaurant and hospitality workers submitted complaints of workplace harassment than any other industry specified in the study. To some, this may seem predictable because of the frequency of late shifts, the presence of alcohol, and a reliance on tips in this industry.

One recent lawsuit that has received attention from local media originated from an employee of the well known Snuffy’s Steakhouse in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. In a complaint recently filed, Alston Shakera v. Snuffy Pantagis ENT. Inc., Alston alleged that she came out of the bathroom to find a busboy exposing himself, and then physically grabbing her when she refused his advances. Prior to this, Alston had been subject to a consistent pattern of sexually harassing comments and unwanted contact by both coworkers and customers. While this may seem like an extreme example of workplace sexual harassment, experts say that employees of restaurants are subject to unwanted touching and lewd remarks or text messages at a particularly high rate.

The restaurant industry is clearly not the only workplace plagued by unlawful harassing behavior. In another recent sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the Mountainside Police Department, several employees have alleged they were subjected to severe harassment and torment stemming including regular homophobic comments, sexual advances and even aggravated assault.

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A new legislative bill has been introduced that would dramatically change New Jersey state law concerning restrictive covenants and non-compete agreements. Bill A1769 is intended to protect New Jersey employees in securing new employment while also taking into consideration the legitimate protectable interests some employers have in restraining certain employees’ post-termination business activities. Whether a restrictive covenant is enforceable will remain a fact-sensitive inquiry, the bill, if passed, will provide both the employee and the employer with a defined set of rules in determining whether a restrictive covenant can be enforced against a former employee.

A restrictive covenant is an agreement between an employee and their employer that restricts an employee’s ability to secure new employment after the employment has ended.  A non-compete clause is a common form of restrictive covenant that seeks to prohibit an employee from working for a competing business for a certain period of time after they are separated from their employment. Another common form of a restrictive covenant is a non-solicitation clause that prohibits a former employee from soliciting business from a former client or customer on behalf of another business.  Restrictive covenants are common for sales representatives, insurance and financial professionals, and other high-income professionals.

In introducing this new bill, the New Jersey legislature has declared that these types of post-employment contracts restrict, prohibit, and impede the development of business in New Jersey because they force skilled workers to find work outside of New Jersey while also requiring businesses to solicit skilled workers from other states to perform work in New Jersey.  For these reasons, the drafters of this bill state that restrictive covenants discourage innovation and production, impose special hardships on employees and may constitute a restraint on trade and commerce.

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The United States Supreme Court has ruled against a gay couple in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for their wedding in the case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  But lest people think that the Supreme Court was ruling on whether a business can refuse to provide goods or services to an individual based upon their sexual orientation, or based on religious objections, it was not.  That decision will surely have its day.

The Supreme Court ‘s ruling was limited to the actions of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in which it ruled against baker Jack Phillips. This case was brought by same sex couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, who had gone to the suburban Denver Colorado Masterpiece Cakeshop to order a custom wedding cake for their upcoming wedding.   Baker Jack Phillips told the couple he would not create a cake for their same sex wedding because of his religious belief but told the couple that they could purchase pre-made products.   According to Mr. Phillips, baking a custom-made cake for a same sex couple interfered with his Christian beliefs.

The couple complained to the Colorado Commission in 2012 arguing that the baker had violated public accommodation law by discriminating against them on the basis of their sexual orientation under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.  The Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation discrimination in a place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services to the public.  After holding formal hearings, the state administrative law judge rejected the baker’s First Amendment claim that it was a violation of his right to the free exercise of religion. Mr. Phillips felt that he would be compelled to create a cake that would require him to utilize his artistic talents to express a message that he disagreed with, on the basis of his religion.  The Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

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Most people know that it is against the law for employers to not pay their employees their earned wages.  But what if you are not an employee, but instead making a living as a freelance worker.  Because freelance workers are not considered employees, the laws that require employers to pay its employees their wages, such as the New Jersey Wage Payment Act and federal Fair Labor Standards Act, do not apply to freelancers.  While there are some laws such as the Independent Sales Representative Rights Act that protect independent sales representatives from not being paid their earned sales commissions, there is no specific law to protect many freelance workers. As a result, companies are far too often stiffing their non-employees from being paid their earned compensation.

New Jersey lawmakers have recognized this as a serious problem in today’s workforce and are now attempting to pass legislation to protect freelance workers from getting paid their earned compensation.  Assembly Bill No. 1526, approved on May 18, 2018, mandates that contracts between a company and a freelance worker, must now be in writing, and provides for severe penalties against companies for shirking their duty to  pay a freelance worker the compensation they are owed.

The bill requires a client to pay a freelance worker his or her compensation earned according to the work terms agreed to with the client.  If there is no agreement, payment shall be paid no later than 30 days after completion of the work or services performed.  The bill defines the term “client” to be any “sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, limited liability company, association, other business entity or nonprofit organization in which that business has contracted with a freelance worker for compensation equal to or greater than $600.”

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The New Jersey Appellate Division has reversed the trial court’s dismissal of an out of state resident’s claim of age discrimination under New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  The decision is an important reminder to employers that New Jersey’s strong public policy to eradicate discriminate in all its ugly forms may extend to non-New Jersey residents who suffer from discrimination that is protected under the New Jersey state law.

In the case Trevejo v. Legal Cost Control, Inc., and John Marquess, the employee, Susan Trevejo, lived in Massachusetts and worked remotely from her home for the employer, whose principal place of business was located in Haddonfield, New Jersey.  In claiming that she had standing to sue under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, Ms. Trevejo pointed out the fact that she was provided a company computer to connect to the company’s corporate server in New Jersey and a company phone to communicate with other company employees, some of whom lived and worked in New Jersey.  The employer argued that Ms. Trevino was never a resident of New Jersey at any point in her employment, never lived in New Jersey and never sought or received any benefits from the state of New Jersey.  The employer also pointed out the fact that although Ms. Trevejo had traveled to New Jersey for business at times during her employment, she had not done so any time from 2009 through 2015.

Twelve years into her employment, the employer terminated Ms. Trevejo’s employment. In response, Ms. Trevejo filed a lawsuit alleging age discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  During the lawsuit, Ms. Trevejo’s employment lawyers requested broad discovery to prove she was entitled to pursue her age discrimination claims under New Jersey’s discrimination laws, including the nature and substance of her electronic and other virtual contact and connection to the employers’ New Jersey office as part of her day-to-day work activities.