SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

Articles Tagged with employment lawyer

For the past year, employees have been undergoing medical screenings and answering questions about their personal health to gain access to their physical workplaces. Employers can lawfully request their health status or require them to take leave from work if they appear to have symptoms of COVID-19. Despite laws protecting employee privacy and the dignity of being in control of our own medical decisions, the public health emergency resulting from the spread of COVID-19 has drastically changed the landscape when it comes to employment decisions based on disability or perceived disability, the duty to reasonably accommodate and the prohibition against workplace retaliation.

6AE55F99-A017-42B1-BEAB-4D7220445832-300x169The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency that enforces workplace anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act makes discrimination based on disability illegal and protects from retaliation individuals who exercise their rights under that law. Other laws, including state and local laws, such as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the New York City Human Rights Law, provide employees with additional protections. Anti-discrimination laws continue to apply during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they must coexist with guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state and local health authorities concerning, among other things, an employer’s right to access employees’ medical information and perform health screenings in the workplace. The intertwining of anti-discrimination laws and public health regulations in the current climate has created a question about whether a COVID-19 infection or perceived infection qualifies an employee for anti-discrimination protection based on disability. The answer will be different depending on whether federal or state law governs the employment relationship, and if state law, which state.

Disability discrimination occurs under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act when an employer treats an employee unfavorably because he or she has a disability, has a history of a disability (such as cancer that has entered remission), or because the employer believes the employee has or used to have a disability. However, not all medical conditions equate to disabilities under the legal definition of the term. A person can show that he or she has a disability in one of three ways: (1) he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, hearing, learning, or limits the operation of a major bodily function); (2) he or she has a history of such a disability (past depression that is currently being successfully treated); or (3) he or she is subject to an adverse employment action (such as demotion, termination or a change in job duties or pay) due to the employer’s belief that he or she has a physical or mental impairment that is more than something minor and temporary.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held on July 29, 2021, that a white employee’s lawsuit against his former employer for workplace retaliation under Title VII could move forward. This decision is especially notable because it is the first time the Third Circuit has issued a directive on race-based associational discrimination. In the case Kengerski v. Harper, No. 20-1307, 2021 WL 3199225 (3d Cir. July 29, 2021) the plaintiff employee alleges he was fired in retaliation for complaining about his supervisor’s racist remarks targeting his bi-racial grandniece and Black and Asian coworkers.

Title VII Retaliation vs. Harassment Claims

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination and harassment based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. It applies to all employers with fifteen or more employees, except for employees of the federal government, and it is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Under Title VII, an employer may not discriminate with regard to any term, condition or privilege of employment, including recruiting and hiring, deciding who to promote and transfer, assigning work, measuring performance, providing benefits and disciplining or firing. It means that no employee or job applicant can be treated differently in the workplace due to his or her protected characteristics. Importantly for the Kengerski plaintiff and others similarly situated, it also means that no employee, even if he or she is not part of a protected class, can be discriminated against at work based on his or her association with someone else who is part of a protected class. This unlawful practice is called “associational discrimination”.

It is not uncommon for states or municipalities to require local residency for public employment. Proponents of residency requirements feel that they benefit the community because residents are more likely to have a strong commitment to the community, to pay local taxes, attend local schools and participate in community activities. Critics of residency requirements often argue that removing the choice of where to live imposes too great a burden on the employee and his or her family. Residency requirements have been litigated in our courts all over the country. The United States Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of residency requirements in general, finding that they are not per se irrational.

692696DC-BF0E-4D5C-B804-7228BA4B9D50-300x300In New Jersey, since September 1, 2011, the “New Jersey First Act”, signed into law by former Governor Chris Christie, has required most public employees working for the state, or one of its counties or municipalities, to live in New Jersey. That requirement has applied to employees of public agencies, commissions, public colleges and universities, and all school boards, among others to reside in the State of New Jersey unless otherwise exempted under the law. Exemptions were to be granted only when a worker could prove a “critical need or hardship.” Those who claimed qualification for the exemption had to present their case to New Jersey’s Employee Residency Review Committee and hope they were granted leave to live outside the state. As adopted by the Civil Service Commission, failure to comply with the State’s regulations on residence standards required the employee’s immediate suspension as “unfit for duty”.

An analysis by NJ Advance Media several years ago showed that in practice, the Employee Residency Review Committee has typically granted requests for exemptions to workers who can prove financial hardship or health concerns or who can submit proof that they are a “critical” employee who would be difficult to replace if they quit as a result of the residency requirement. Since its enactment, the Committee has granted exemptions to approximately 80% of applicants, with reasons ranging from child custody agreements to the inability to pay New Jersey’s high property taxes, to debilitating family illnesses. Other applicants have been granted permission to live outside the state simply by presenting a letter from their employer stating that they are “critical” to their work for the state.

The rampant abuse of arbitration agreements, and the injustice that these agreements have created for employees, is finally being recognized and addressed. The Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act, or “FAIR Act,” was introduced to the United States House of Representatives by Representatives Hank Johnson and Richard Blumenthal on February 28, 2019.  The FAIR Act would, among other things, outlaw forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts or agreements.  The FAIR Act would, instead, require that the employee agree to arbitration only after the dispute has arisen in order for any arbitration agreement to be enforceable.

If passed as written, the Fair Act would not have retroactive effect as to disputes that arose prior to its passing; however, the bill would have retroactive effect in that it would apply to arbitration clauses in employment contracts that were entered into prior to the bill’s passing.  In other words, if the bill passes, all disputes arising thereafter would not be subject to an arbitration clause included in an employment agreement.

The current state of arbitration across the country is a classic case of too much of a good thing.  In theory, arbitration would serve as an option afforded to both parties to a dispute, with each party given the opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of that option to determine if they wished to have their dispute resolved through arbitration. In reality, however, this is not how arbitration works most of the time.  In the majority of arbitrations, one party was not truly given an option and did not understand anything about the process prior to “agreeing” to have any future dispute resolved through that process.  As a result, many people never get their day in court, because they unwittingly signed away their right to do so.

A New Jersey Appellate Division has affirmed a jury verdict of $525K in favor of a former customer service representative against her former company, RockTenn Co., and supervisor for claims of hostile work environment and unlawful retaliation. This sexual harassment case is another reminder to all New Jersey employers of the importance of having effective anti-discrimination policies in place that stop and remediate workplace sexual harassment.

In the case, Velez v. RockTenn Company and Raymond Perry,  the employee, Ms. Velez began her employment with RockTenn as a customer service representative in November, 2010 earning $45,000 per year.  Shortly after beginning her employment, Ms. Velez’s supervisor, Mr. Perry, engaged in sexually harassing behavior toward her.  The unwelcomed sexual harassment included Mr. Perry showing Ms. Velez a picture of his girlfriend and telling Ms. Velez that they had recently broke up.  Mr. Perry commented that his girlfriend had “nice thighs” and he loved Latino women. Ms. Velez, who is also Latino, testified that Mr. Perry would inappropriate look at her breasts, legs and backside while he spoke to her at work and one time asked her out on a date.  Ms. Velez also testified that he asked her out and that his conduct caused her to avoid going into his office.  At the company holiday party, Mr. Perry again showed a picture of his girlfriend to Ms. Velez and announced that she was trying to convince him to have a threesome.  A month later in January, 2011, Mr. Perry placed his hand over Ms. Velez’s hand during a work-related conversation and stated, “Oh, I should not be doing this, should I?”

Mr. Perry also exhibited controlling behavior over Ms. Velez during her employment.  Mr. Perry attempted to limit Ms. Velez’s interactions with other employees and went as far as to instruct her not to have lunch with another male employee, whom Mr. Perry did not believe was a good person. Mr. Perry also prevented Ms. Velez from attending a mandatory training, which Ms. Velez claims was in retaliation for her rebuffing of Mr. Perry’s harassing conduct.

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