New Jersey Passes Landmark Wage Theft Law

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. 

The amendments to the Wage Payment Law also include anti-retaliation provisions for employees who oppose wage theft violations.  Employees who are terminated for filing a complaint concerning an employer’s wage theft violation can pursue a claim for unlawful termination and can recover lost wages, liquidated damages up to 200% of the wage claim and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.  With this wide range of applications, the new wage payment law will empower workers of all kinds to seek justice against their employers who have wronged them and owe them just compensation for their work. 

The new law penalizes the improper wage payment practices of employers beyond just monetary damages. While the legislation allows for employees to recover their unpaid wages and other penalties, the new law also allows the state to impose a series of fines on employers who violate the new law. These fines will increase with the frequency of the violations by the same employer. Employers who continue to violate the new law can also be penalized by imprisonment for failure to comply with the law. The law also holds that if an employer repeatedly violates its provisions, they are subject to the loss of their business license, thus putting an effective and affirmative end to an employer’s predatory pay practices. 

In signing S1970 into law, Acting Governor Oliver said, “We must ensure that every hardworking individual in New Jersey receives the wages they work hard to earn.”  Senator Loretta Weinberg, who was a primary sponsor of the bill added, “Wage theft is immoral, intolerable and yet, far too common. More often than not, it is those at the lowest rungs of our socioeconomic ladder that are taken advantage of by their employer.  It falls on us, therefore, to defend those who don’t generally have the means to defend themselves.”  

Prior to the August 2019 amendments, the New Jersey Wage Payment Law was long criticized by New Jersey employment lawyers for failing to provide sufficient penalties to deter  employers who cheat their employees out of earned wages. The prior New Jersey Wage Payment Law limited an aggrieved employee’s recovery to their actual damages, and did not allow any  liquidated damages. It also did not allow an aggrieved employee to recoup reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs incurred litigating claims of wage theft. This resulted in many employees not pursuing their wage claims for being unable to afford the costs of litigation or the attorneys’ fees that are necessary to pursue wage theft claims.  

Brandon McKoy, President of the New Jersey Policy Perspective said, “New Jersey workers lose out on millions that are rightfully owed every year due to wage theft.  Whether its unpaid overtime or stolen tips, wage theft often harms low-paid workers already struggling to get by. The new law signed by Acting Governor Sheila Oliver follows best practices across the nation and will make New Jersey a national leader in protecting workers from abusive and illegal employer behavior.”

This law marks a major victory for workers in the state of New Jersey and acts as a fair warning to employers throughout the state to enact proper pay practices. With this new legislation, an employee can seek just remedy for pay injustices perpetrated by employers. This is not just providing a remedy for individual workers, but for the whole state of New Jersey where communities have been cheated from revenue as a result of its citizens being short-changed their hard-earned pay. The hard-working people of New Jersey finally have a means for effective recourse should their right to earned pay be infringed by an employer.