SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

Articles Posted in Wage and Hour law

Statistics show people with disabilities in the United States are twice as likely to be unemployed than those without a disability. The issue has been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused joblessness to rise and an increase of workplace disability discrimination. But underlying the conversation about getting people with disabilities back to work is a controversial debate about where and what type of work people with disabilities should have access to and be provided reasonable accommodations.

6AE55F99-A017-42B1-BEAB-4D7220445832-300x169In September 2020, Governor Murphy announced that a total of $1,312,500 of CARES Act funding will be used to reopen 26 sheltered workshop programs throughout New Jersey which have been closed for close to a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In making this announcement, supporters credited sheltered workshops with providing “a positive and valuable service for our developmentally disabled community”, and “a safe work environment that cultivates their skills and abilities”. However just 4 months later, in January 2021, some of those same supporters advanced the argument that our state government should be doing more to help individuals with disabilities find inclusive and competitive employment. So what is a sheltered workshop and how is it different from an inclusive and competitive workplace?

A sheltered workshop is an employer that is authorized under New Jersey’s Wage and Hour Law to employ individuals with disabilities at a rate less than the minimum wage. Specifically, Subchapter 9 of the Wage and Hour Law, defines “individual with disability” as someone whose earning capacity is impaired by a physical or mental disability and “sheltered workshop” as a charitable organization focused on rehabilitation, employment or vocational training for individuals whose earning capacity is thus impaired. The law is based on the faulty logic that a person’s disability is the main factor impairing his or her earning potential, and not the law itself which explicitly degrades that potential. These sheltered workshops apply for permits with the Office of Wage and Hour Compliance which authorize them to employ individuals with disabilities at less than minimum wage. Only people with disabilities can be employed under these special permits, ensuring that all non-disabled employees are paid higher wages.

On June 29, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled that consumer goods giant, Amazon, must defend itself in a class action lawsuit brought by warehouse employees claiming violations of wage and hour laws arising from Amazon’s mandatory post-shift security screenings.

IMG_4764-300x165According to the Complaint, at the end of the workday, Amazon’s warehouse employees must submit to a lengthy security screening before they are permitted to leave Amazon’s premises. The lawsuit alleges that the security screening requires hundreds of employees to wait together before each individual must walk through a metal detector and place his or her personal items on a conveyor belt to be scanned via x-ray. If, after the initial screening, Amazon determines that additional screening is necessary, the employee must then report to the secondary screening area for a manual search of the employee’s person. These screenings are intended by Amazon to prevent theft of goods and can take approximately half an hour to complete after the employees have already clocked out of their shifts. Employees are not compensated for the time spent in these screenings.

The Complaint also alleges that the same security screening procedure is required of any employee that wishes to leave Amazon’s premises for his or her unpaid, 30 minute lunch break. Given the vastness of Amazon’s parking lot and remoteness of its premises, the screening allegedly prevents employees from going off site for their meal breaks. The lawsuit claims that Amazon violated federal and state wage and hour laws by failing to count time spent in these mandatory screenings as “hours worked” for purposes of calculating wages and overtime.

Governor Phil Murphy has signed into law several bills that will significantly expand protections for New Jersey workers. The new legislation includes a package of bills that aim to protect the rights of workers who have been misclassified as independent contractors.  The new law provides for penalties against employers who misclassify their workers as independent contractors instead of employees.

IMG_3012-300x176The punitive aspect of the new law aims to encourage employers to appropriately designate employees as such, and therefore affording them the legal protections provided to employees under various state and federal employment laws. However, this controversial bill has sparked much debate regarding the future of workers in the “gig” economy. Opponents of the law contend that the new law will create significant financial burdens on businesses who will then in turn refuse to employ these workers.

New Jersey employment law distinguishes between two types of workers: employees and independent contractors. While regular employees enjoy and have access to wage theft protections, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits, sick and family leave, health and safety, and anti-discrimination protections, independent contractors receive no such benefits. Historically, employers were required by law to pay tax contributions on employee’s wages only, and not those of independent contractors. This resulted in a scenario where it is enticing for employers to classify, and perhaps even misclassify, workers as independent contractors under any circumstance. The new legislation aims to combat such conduct and improve protections for misclassified workers.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently found that a federal standard of calculating overtime is non-complaint with its state wage and hour laws. Specifically, the Court found that the Fluctuating Work Week (FWW) method of calculating overtime wages, adopted under the Fair Labor Standards Act, does not adequately compensate non-exempt employees at a time and half rate for hours worked over the standard 40 hour work week, as required by Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act (PMWA). The FWW methods is currently used by many companies throughout the U.S., including New Jersey. Because of the similarities between Pennsylvania and New Jersey state wage and hour and wage payment laws, this decision may impact the rate at which some New Jersey’s employees are payed for their over time work.

New Jersey Employment LaywersUnder the FWW method of calculating over time, it is permissible for an employer to calculate a non-exempt employees’ wages in the following way:

  1. The employee works hours that fluctuate from week to week;

Whether a worker is afforded protection under federal and New Jersey employment laws is often determined whether they are an employee or an independent contractor. Many employment laws provide protection only to employees, with little to no protection for independent contractors. For example, employees have access to wage theft protection, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits, family leave laws, health and safety, and anti-discrimination protections, whereas independent contractors may not. In situations where a worker is misclassified as an independent contractor, rather than an employee, that worker can be deprived of the protections that they are entitled to under the law.

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Classification of whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor has become more and more important in our going growing technological economy. The growing accessibility of technology provides a vast digital marketplace that is now at the fingertips of millions of consumers. App-based companies, such as Uber, Lyft, and Postmates have taken advantage of this accessibility and services quickly and conveniently. To accomplish this goal, these companies typically elicit services from workers on a job-by-job basis, commonly referred to as “gigs”. As this “gig” economy expands and becomes a more viable source of income for many workers, it brings to the surface questions with respect to the classification of the workers engaging in it.

As a result of the increasing frequency of worker misclassification, New Jersey organized the Task Force on Employee Misclassification to investigate and address the issue.  In its July 2019 report, the Task Force found that while prominent within the “gig” economy, this misclassification extends to workers many sectors, especially those in labor-intensive and low-wage positions. In fact, Federal studies and state-level agency audits suggest that between 10 and 30 percent of employers have misclassified employees as independent contractors, a number that has grown by upwards of 40% in recent years. In addition to depriving employees of protections under the law, these employers have avoided payment of income taxes as well as contributions to social programs, such as Social Security, on the misclassified employees.

A recent gubernatorial task force has released a report addressing a major problem that many employees are facing across the state of New Jersey. According to the Report of Governor Murphy’s Task Force on Employee Misclassification, 12,315 employees were improperly classified as independent contractors, rather than employees, in 2018. This misclassification can cause major issues for workers by limiting their access to essential legal protections provided to New Jersey employees. There has been a growing trend of misclassification, with the number of employees misclassified as independent contractors increasing by 40% over the past decade. Unfortunately, this trend continues to create problems for workers across the State to this day, which is why Governor Murphy’s task force was so greatly needed.

New Jersey Employment Laywers
Generally, in order to determine whether a worker is properly classified as an employee or an independent contractor for wage payment law and wage and hour law purposes, New Jersey courts utilize what is known as the ‘ABC Test.’ The ABC Test starts off with a presumption that a worker is an employee. An employer can rebut this presumption only if they can establish the existence of each of the following three factors:

  • The worker is free from control or direction in the performance of their services, both under the contract and in fact;

After passing both chambers of the New Jersey legislature, yesterday Acting Governor Sheila Oliver signed S1790 into law amending the New Jersey Wage Payment law.  The amendments to the wage statute are long overdue and will provide employees with much needed legal protections against wage theft by employers. The new law strengthens existing wage law by providing steep penalties against employers that fail to timely pay their workers their earned wages and benefits.

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Wage theft occurs when employers fail to pay employees their earned wages and benefits in a timely manner. Wage theft violations can also include failure to pay minimum wage, failure to pay overtime, employee misclassification, asking employees to work off the clock, break violations, illegal deductions and other pay related violations. Wage theft is often rampant in industries with many workers in lower-wage jobs, making them particularly vulnerable to wage discrimination and retaliation. 

The amendments to the New Jersey wage statute are game-changing. They provide the much needed teeth for employees to fight back against employers who engage in wage theft.  Under the new law, an employee will now be able to seek liquidated damages in an amount up to two (2) times wages owed. The new law will also allow employees to recoup reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in litigating a wage theft claim against an employer or former employer.  The new provisions will assist aggrieved employees with access to competent wage theft employment lawyers to represent them and deter employers from committing future wage theft violations. The new law also changes the statute of limitations from 2 years to 6 years. The change to the statute of limitations is being interpreted by many employment lawyers to allow employees to bring a claim of wage violations for up to 6 years if the same violation occurs after its August 5, 2019 passage. 

Defenders of labor rights face an uphill battle addressing the widespread abuses facing workers around the world.  Most industrialized nations have legal protections in place establishing standards for labor conditions, but in many parts of the world this is not the case. In our globalized economy, corporations in industrialized nations take advantage of this reality and set their manufacturing and production operations to those nations, to access relatively inexpensive labor.  In the worst of these cases, workers have no protections whatsoever, and live in slavery. Recently, a United States federal court took a step to hold some of these companies responsible, for being at least complicit in a system supported by slavery, as the court put it in “receiving cocoa at a price that would not be obtainable without employing child slave labor.”

Last month the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision of a California District Court Judge’s in the case John Doe I, et. al. v. Nestle, S.A., et. al.  In this case, the unnamed plaintiffs allege that a group of corporate defendants in the business of processing cocoa beans were complicit in a system of widespread child slavery that occurred on cocoa plantations in the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, a nation on the West African coast.   The plaintiffs in the case, identified only as John Doe’s I–VI, allege that they were victimized by these companies and the decisions those companies made in pursuing profits, up to and including condoning the use of child slave labor on the plantations of their cocoa suppliers.

The defendants in this case, Nestle, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland, are each large multinational corporations and are among the world’s largest manufacturers, purchasers, processors, and retail sellers of cocoa beans.  The plaintiffs are not U.S. citizens, but were able to file their suit in U.S. Federal Court on the basis of the Alien Tort Statute, or the “ATS.”  That statute, originally passed in the Judiciary Act of 1789, provides original jurisdiction to the federal courts for foreign citizens to seek redress for harms suffered as the result of a tort committed in violation of the law of nations. Among other torts, courts have found torture, genocide, war crimes, and slavery to be actionable under the ATS.

A New Jersey District Court has allowed an independent sales representative to proceed with his lawsuit against his principal company for failing to pay his earned sales commissions.  This case reaffirms New Jersey’s strong public policy in assuring sales representatives are timely paid their earned sales commissions.

Prior to New Jersey passing the Sales Representatives’ Rights Act,  independent sales representatives often faced an uphill battle when it came to legal disputes concerning unpaid commissions. As an independent contractor who is paid on a 1099 basis, New Jersey Wage Payment law does not protect independent sales representatives from being paid their sales commissions because they are not considered employees under the law.  In recognizing the need to protect independent sales representatives from receiving their hard-earned commissions, New Jersey enacted the New Jersey Sales Representatives’ Rights Act that allows for sales representatives to sue for their unpaid earned commissions and imposes significant penalties against principals for failing to pay the commissions in a timely manner.

In the recent case TLE Marketing Co. v. WBM, LLC, No. CV-17-11752 Slip Op. (D.N.J. Sep. 14, 2018) the plaintiff raised a novel argument that, if successful, could expand the reach of the Act.  TLE Marketing Corporation is an independent sales agency based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and has been providing marketing and sales representation for companies since 1976.  WBM, LLC is a developer, importer, and distributor of a variety of distinctive products, with a primary focus on Himalayan salt products.  WBM is based out of Flemington, New Jersey and has been in business for over 20 years.  Starting in 2007, TLE and WBM began working together, signing a sales representative contract that provided that TLE would market and sell WBM products.  The two companies enjoyed a lengthy business relationship of almost 10 years until, in June 2017, WBM terminated the sales representative contract.  In response, TLE filed a complaint in Minnesota alleging wrongful termination, breach of contract, and failure to pay commissions in violation of Minnesota state statute.

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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