Telecommuting: The New Workplace Frontier

Working from home is nothing new, but it was never the norm. There have always been situations where employers have allowed employees to work remotely, and those opportunities have expanded with the introduction of computers, the internet, and video conferencing. The pandemic turned what had been an exception into a rule, as companies and their non-essential workers scrambled to accommodate stay-at-home rules that they thought would last weeks, but which turned into months.

A year later, most office workers have created some kind of workspace in their home. Zoom meetings that were once novel have become old news. Perhaps most tellingly, employers who were once resistant to telecommuting are now aware of its positive impacts. They’ve benefited from reduced overhead costs for rent, insurance, office equipment and maintenance. They are able to hire talent from outside of their geographic area, and they’ve found that their employees continue to be productive, and in many cases are happier without having to commute or spend money on business clothes. Working parents have more flexibility surrounding their children. There is a hope for some, and expectation for others, that this aspect of the pandemic’s “new normal” will remain.

Where work-from-home arrangements may previously have been permitted as an accommodation for an injured or disabled employee, a new mother, or similarly situated individual, once it becomes an opt-in work benefit or environment, it must be made available in a fair and equitable way. This means employers may not discriminate against any employee who is a member of a protected category such as age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin. Employees who are blocked from the opportunity to work from home based on any of these categories – or for that matter who believe that they are being kept from the workplace on that basis – may be eligible to file an employment discrimination lawsuit.

Another complexity created by increased acceptance of telecommuting has to do with hiring the of employees who live in a different state from the employer’s location. Telecommuting introduces limitless opportunities for recruiting talent, which can be a real advantage for employer and employee alike.  Recent New Jersey case law has held that New Jersey employees who work remotely from home for employers in another state can be protected by the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and other New Jersey civil rights laws.  Also, employees from other states that work remotely for New Jersey employers will also be protected by New Jersey anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation laws.

Although the workplace is rapidly transforming from being office-based to remote-based, the law still requires that employers may not discriminate or retaliate against their employees.  To speak to an experienced employment attorney who can guide you on these and other issues, contact the New Jersey Employment law office of Alan Schorr & Associates.

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