As we head into the last few weeks of the year, it’s time to take a look back at what 2021 meant to New Jersey employees, as well as what to expect in the year to come. Many of the changes that we saw were responses to the ongoing pandemic, but others represented a continuation of New Jersey’s commitment to ensuring equal treatment for all.
New Laws Passed (and Old Laws Amended) in 2021
- Vaccine Mandates – Though most had assumed that effective vaccines against COVID-19 would be welcomed by all, a large and vocal percentage of the population has refused to avail themselves of these protections. Both the federal and state governments responded with mandates. The federal government announced that workers in almost all healthcare settings, as well as federal executive branch employees and all federal contractors be fully vaccinated, and that all workers at businesses with 100 or more employees be either fully vaccinated or subjected to weekly testing. The state required the same of all workers in preschool to Grade 12 schools, as well as all workers in certain health care facilities and high-risk settings, workers at state agencies, authorities, colleges and universities, and all childcare workers. Though some questioned the legality of these actions, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a statement indicating that federal equal employment opportunity laws “do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19, so long as employers comply with the reasonable accommodation provisions of the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The same is considered true of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
- COBRA Subsidy – Another COVID-19-related action provided a 100% subsidy of premiums for employees to continue their health insurance coverage under COBRA through September 30, 2021. Under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, employers were required to treat those whose COBRA coverage was lost due to a pandemic-related reduction in hours or an involuntary job loss as having fully paid COBRA coverage during the six-month subsidy period.
- Minimum wage increase – The year 2021 saw New Jersey’s minimum wage increase to $12,00 per hour. The state’s Minimum Wage Law has mandated that hourly wages reach a minimum of $15 by 2024.
- State of Emergency’s End Leads to Enactment of New Employer Notice Law – On June 4, 2021, Governor Murphy signed legislation and an executive order ending the COVID-19 public health emergency. In doing so, almost all executive orders issued pursuant to the COVID-19 public health crisis expired 30 days later. The action also cleared the way for amendments to the NJ WARN Act that were supposed to have taken effect in mid-2020 but which were delayed by the pandemic. Those amendments expanded the definition of the term “mass layoff” and increased the amount of time that an employer was required to provide to employees of such an action. It also required that employees that enacted this type of job action provide severance payments equal to one week’s pay for each full year of service.
- New Rules Expand Family Leave Act Protections – In mid-October, New Jersey’s Acting Attorney General Andrew J. Bruck announced that the Division on Civil Rights had adopted amendments to the state’s Family Leave Act allowing eligible employees of covered employers to take as long as 12 weeks of leave during a 24-month period to care for or bond with a new child or to care for a family member or equivalent. The modifications extended protected family leave to include the impact of quarantines during a state of emergency or to provide care for a child due to a school or daycare’s closing during a public health emergency. The changes also expanded the definition of a covered employer to include employers with 30 or more employees worldwide, updated the definition of eligible employee to allow a person to count even if they were either laid off or furloughed for up to 90 days, broadened the definitions of family member as well as parent and child, and more.
- Legalization of marijuana – Following the state’s legalization of marijuana, many employers were left uncertain as to its impact on their internal drug use policies, but in August the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission provided that “no employer shall … take any adverse action against any employee … because that person does or does not smoke, vape, aerosolize or otherwise use cannabis items, and an employee shall not be subject to any adverse action by an employer solely due to the presence of cannabinoid metabolites in the employee’s bodily fluid.” Though employers are still able to prohibit workers from using or possessing marijuana in the workplace or during work hours, positive drug tests can no longer be used as a reason for an employment action. Work being impaired by drug use continues to be grounds for dismissal, but requires confirmation from a Certified Workplace Impairment Recognition Expert.
- Age discrimination protections expanded – In October, New Jersey extended the protections available to older workers by amending the Law Against Discrimination. Forced retirement claims are now entitled to file private lawsuits against employers, damage limits were removed for forced retirement claims, and limitations that had allowed businesses to refuse to hire or promote applicants or employers over the age of 70 have been eliminated.
Laws to be Enacted or Expected in 2022
- Employee misclassification – Effective January 1st, misclassifying employees in order to avoid having to pay insurance premiums will become a violation of the state’s Insurance Fraud Prevention Act and will be punishable by fines of up to $5,000 for the first violation.
- Minimum wage – Effective January 1st the state’s minimum wage will increase to $13 per hour.
As new laws are passed, our NJ employment discrimination attorneys will be fully prepared to help those who have been discriminated against. For more information specific to your particular situation, contact our office today to set up a convenient time to chat.