SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

Articles Tagged with New Jersey employment attorney

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.

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.

Most people know that Workers’ Compensation provides benefits to employees who get injured or sick as a result of their jobs. Workers’ compensation is a State-run insurance program that provides medical and other benefits to individuals who suffer job-related ailments. It also provides death benefits to an employee’s dependents if the employee dies as a result of the job-related illness or injury. Workers’ compensation is a no-fault program, which means that a sick or injured employee will receive the benefits no matter who was at fault, but in exchange, the employee cannot bring a civil action against the employer except under circumstances involving intentional acts.

IMG_0999-300x169So what about all the essential workers who are risking their health showing up to work every day during the Covid-19 pandemic? First responders, healthcare workers, and employees working to provide essential goods and services during the Statewide shut down are among those at the greatest risk of contracting and becoming sick from the virus. How does New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Law protect them? Can Covid-19 be considered a work-related illness during our current public health crisis?

New Jersey lawmakers have recognized this as a serious problem in today’s workforce and have passed legislation to protect essential employees who contract Covid-19 at work. Senate Act No. 2380, approved on May 14, 2020, mandates that if during the public health crisis declared by Executive Order 103 (and extended by any subsequent executive orders) an essential employee contracts Covid-19 while at work outside of his or her home, there will be a rebuttable presumption that the contraction of the virus was work-related and fully compensable under New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Law, disability retirement, and any other benefits provided to individuals who suffer illness or injury related to their employment.  This presumption in favor of the essential employee can be rebutted by a preponderance of the evidence that shows the employee was not exposed to the virus while at work.

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