SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

Articles Posted in Wage Payment law

Liquidated damages are a type of monetary compensation to which an injured party is entitled when a statute provides for this additional relief or when it is available under contract.  When liquidated damages are an available remedy under statutory law, the statute will generally provide guidelines to courts to help them determine the appropriate award. Under New Jersey’s Wage Payment Law, specifically the August 6, 2019 amendments also commonly known as the Wage Theft Act, an additional amount of liquidated damages of up to 200% of the unpaid wages due are available should the plaintiff succeed in his or her claim for unpaid wages. The Wage Theft Act also extended the time plaintiffs have to bring claims against their employers from two to six years.

IMG_0615-4-300x170-3-300x170One question that has been litigated in the year and a half since the passing of the Wage Theft Act is whether the amendments apply retroactively to claims that arose before August 6, 2019. The Superior Court for the State of New Jersey in the Essex County vicinage just refused to dismiss a putative class action complaint filed by Werny Castro on behalf of himself and other similarly situated truck drivers, against the defendant Linden Bulk Transportation, LLC, a for-profit motor freight carrier, under the New Jersey Wage Payment Law, including the wage theft amendments. Castro claims that the trucking company purposely misclassified him and other similarly situated drivers as independent contractors rather than employees in order to avoid paying them proper wages in violation of the Wage Payment Law.

Castro’s job required him to deliver cargo from Linden’s facility to various ports in New Jersey. He claims that since August 2013, the trucking company has misclassified him and other drivers, and unlawfully required them to pay certain expenses thereby depriving them of rightfully earned wages. Specifically, Linden required drivers to pay for fuel, taxes, tolls, truck parts, insurance policies and business-related phone calls, among other items. The trucking company classified the drivers as lessors of the trucks, and itself as lessee. Castro claims, however, that the drivers in fact leased the vehicles from an affiliate of Linden and that at least one of the vehicles was even registered under Linden’s Department of Transportation registration number. In addition to control and ownership of the vehicles, Castro claims that the trucking company also exercised control over the work performed by him and the other putative plaintiffs. For instance, Linden set work schedules and distributed assignments, required the use of Linden’s shipping invoices and time verification reports, and required that the trucks be returned to and stored at Linden’s facility at the end of each shift. Linden also had the ability to terminate Castro and the other drivers, which would have left them entirely unemployed without any clients or customers, because they all relied entirely upon Linden for their work.

Employers are increasingly attempting to avoid having to pay sales employees their rightfully earned and owed sales commissions during the COVID pandemic. In many cases, a company has no legal basis to avoid paying sales representatives their earned commissions by unilaterally retroactively changing the terms and conditions of how sales commissions are earned because COVID related conditions result in an unexpected increase in sales. In these situations, a sales representative understanding of their legal rights is critical if he or she has any hope in recovering their earned commissions.

Employees who are paid through commissions rightfully rely on being timely paid their earned compensation. Commission structures also benefit employers by motivating employees to perform at or above company expectations, thereby increasing profitability for the employer and allowing the employer to identify and reward its most productive employees. The type of commission structure an employer uses can range from simple to complicated, and most of them are memorialized in employment agreements signed by both empB6D67F1E-7E48-4F4C-A59E-5470E7CCFEAF-300x169loyer and employee. Once an employee and employer agree to the terms of how commissions are earned and when they are to be paid, an employer cannot unilaterally and retroactively change the terms without breaching the contract or potentially violating wage payment law.  If an employer wishes to change the terms and conditions of a commission agreement, like any contract, they must give proper notice to the employee of the proposed change and obtain the employees clear consent to the new agreement. Often, employers who wish to alter commission structures do so to save money, which for the employee, means lower commissions and reduced income.

Sometimes, an employer is prevented from paying agreed-upon commissions due to unpredictable hardships outside of the employer’s control, like acts of terrorism or natural disasters that make performance of the contract impossible or impracticable. For an employer to protect itself from these unforeseen events, they may contain a force majeure clause in a sales agreement which potentially could release the paying party from its obligations when payment becomes impossible or impracticable.

Recent changes to the New Jersey WARN Act now guarantees severance pay for New Jersey workers terminated pursuant to certain kinds of layoffs. Governor Murphy recently signed into law several amendments to The Millville Dallas Airmotive Plant Job Loss Notification Act, commonly referred to as the New Jersey WARN Act (“NJ WARN Act”), Scheduled to come into effect July 21, 2020.  The new amendments, in addition to severance pay, greatly expand the coverage of the Act, now applying to more employers and protecting more employees.

IMG_1040-300x169The NJ WARN Act requires certain employers to provide sufficient notice to terminated employees prior to particular events, such as plant closings, operational transfers or terminations, and mass layoffs. The recent changes to the Warn Act, increases the amount of New Jersey employers subject to the notification requirement. The WARN Act now applies to all employers in the state that have operated within the state for a period of more than three years. Prior to the amendments, the Act only applied to those employers who had operated at a single location, or locations in close proximity to each other, for a period of over three years. Additionally, the amendments now provide for personal liability to those individuals acting in a supervisory role and who play a part in the decision to terminate covered employees. Accordingly, many more New Jersey employers must provide employees notice prior to terminations under the WARN Act.

The amendments also provide addition coverage to New Jersey employees. Prior to these amendments, the WARN Act previously distinguished between full-time and part-time employees, affording protections to only those employees who worked on a full-time basis. The amendments have removed distinction and now provides protections to all employees, regardless of the number of hours they work each week. Furthermore, the tenure requirement in order for employees to be afforded protections under the WARN Act has been removed. Previously, employees were not considered full-time employees under the WARN Act unless they had worked for the employer for at least six (6) of the last (12) months at the time of their termination. The WARN Act now treats all employees equally, in this respect, regardless of the length of their employment.

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. 

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