At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:
- Describe the New Jersey labor laws passed or modified since 2018 that apply to medical practices.
- Understand the laws and regulations concerning provision of sick time, determination of wages for hourly earning employees, and how and when to safely inquire into an applicant’s salary history.
- Discuss employers’ obligations when an employee or applicant tests positive for marijuana.
Many medical professionals see themselves only as performing their most critical function, providing expert clinical care to patients to improve their patient’s health. In this role, medical professionals strive to meet every possible benchmark of success regularly ensuring positive outcomes for patients. However, many physicians wear two hats concurrently: clinical physician and employer. The laws and regulations governing employers across New Jersey are directly applicable to medical offices employing office staff, nurses, physician assistants and any other person hired within the practice.
Since 2018, New Jersey has passed several new labor laws and modified existing laws that dramatically affect the workplace. New Jersey has taken a progressive approach imposing requirements for all employers, including medical partnerships and practice groups that employ staff to assist medical professionals. This legislation includes the New Jersey Earned Sick Leave Law, the New Jersey State Wage and Hours Law, the New Jersey Equal Pay Act, the Salary History Inquiry Ban and the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act. To remain compliant, and to ease issues with potential employment-related liability, all medical professional employers should have knowledge of these laws and updates, and implement office management strategies.
New Jersey Earned Sick Leave Law1
Effective October 29, 2018, in general, all employers must provide earned sick leave to each employee working for the employer in the state. Employees are eligible to accrue one hour of earned sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to 40 hours each year. The liberal definition of employer in this statute encompasses most corporate forms utilized by medical practices.
Under the new law, all full-time, part-time and temporary employees are eligible for earned sick leave benefits. However, the law specifically excludes certain defined employees: construction workers employed pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, public employees already entitled to sick leave (i.e., teachers and police officers) and per diem healthcare employees. The statute defines per diem healthcare employees as licensed healthcare professionals (i.e., doctors and nurses), individuals in the application process to become healthcare providers (residents) and all first responders (emergency medical technicians). These per diem healthcare employees (who are ineligible for earned sick leave benefits) must also work on an as-needed basis (temporarily or permanently) and have the ability to obtain sick leave benefits from their direct employer or have waived the benefits.
Qualified employees began to accrue earned sick leave on October 28, 2018, or on their first date of hire, whichever is later. Employers must establish a benefit year that defines the beginning and end of an employee’s benefit period, regardless of the employee’s date of hire. As a result, and encouraged by the Legislature, employers can front-load the full amount of annual leave at the beginning of the benefit year.
The statute defines a qualified employee’s permitted uses for earned sick leave time. An employee may use the earned sick leave time for diagnosis, care, treatment or recovery from an adverse health condition, or preventative care, for the employee or employee’s family member. Additionally, earned sick time can be used when the employee is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking, or when an employee’s place of business or the employee’s child’s daycare or school is closed (i.e., snow day).
The Act provides employers with the discretion to choose the increments in which employees may use accrued sick time. However, the largest increment chosen may not be larger than the number of hours an employee is scheduled to work in a given shift. For example, if an employee is scheduled to work a seven-hour shift, the employer cannot mandate that the employee use paid sick time in increments of eight hours.
Accrued but unused earned sick time must be carried over on a yearly basis, subject to the 40-hour cap. Employers may give the option of being compensated for the unused accrued leave. Employees must opt within 10 days of the offer to receive full payment or 50 percent payment with the remainder carried over, or decline payment and carry over all unused time, subject to the cap. If employers front-load the full amount of leave, they must opt to pay out for unused leave and forego the right to the accrual method during the next benefit year or automatically carry over the accrued but unused leave subject to the annual 40-hour cap.
The law specifically prohibits retaliation premised upon an employee’s use of accrued earned sick time and enforces the law by establishing a legal cause of action and providing for attorney’s fees for a plaintiff successfully bringing a claim under the statute. If an employee brings a claim for violation of the Earned Sick Leave Law, the employer will be charged with a rebuttable presumption of unlawful retaliation if an adverse employment action is taken within 90 days of any of the following: 1) an employee filing a complaint with the Department of Labor (DOL), 2) informing other employees of an employer’s violation of the Act, 3) cooperating with the DOL’s investigation of possible violations, or 4) opposing any policy, practice or act that is prohibited under the Act.
The Act allows employers to require up to seven days’ advance notice of intended use and the expected duration of the leave when that leave is foreseeable (i.e., for school-related purposes or preplanned medical care). An employer has the ability to prohibit the use of earned sick time on certain dates without specified documentation by the employee. In addition to these blackout dates, employers may require documentation to prove the leave was for a permissible purpose when employees use three or more days in a row.
Employers must provide notice of these rights to new employees on the form issued by the Commissioner and must post the form at the workplace. Employers now must keep records for five years documenting an employee’s work hours and accrued paid sick days. Failure to maintain records results in a presumption of non-compliance with the law unless the employer can show otherwise with clear and convincing evidence.
To remain compliant with the Earned Sick Leave law, employers should make sure all practice handbooks and policies are updated. Medical offices may need to establish or update record keeping policies in accordance with the Act. Finally, practice managers must determine the accrual method, benefit year and increments for use of earned sick time.
New Jersey State Wage and Hours Law2
In February 2019, Governor Phil Murphy signed a law that gradually increases the minimum wage to $15 an hour over a five-year period. The scheduled gradual increases are as follows:
January 1, 2020: $11 per hour
January 1, 2021: $12 per hour
January 1, 2022: $13 per hour
January 1, 2023: $14 per hour
January 1, 2024: $15 per hour
After 2024, the minimum wage will increase based upon increases to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). If the CPI increase is higher than the minimum wage, the wage will be adjusted to match the CPI. The increased minimum wage statute exempts certain employers from the gradual increases. Seasonal workers, tipped workers and agricultural workers all earn a significantly lower minimum wage, but increases still occur over a defined five-year period.
A critical exemption exists for small businesses that employ fewer than five employees for the calendar year. Small businesses are subject to lower increases over the incremental scale and reach the $15 threshold two years later in 2026. Small business employers also do not face the future attachment to the CPI and potential unlimited raises in the minimum wage for future employees.
Violations of the minimum wage law are subject to penalties under the New Jersey Department of Labor, Wage and Hour statutes. To ensure compliance with the law, physicians and practice managers should contact an attorney if the practice employs hourly wage employees and pays minimum wage to any of these employees.
New Jersey Equal Pay Act3
The Senator Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act prohibits employers from discriminating in compensation or financial terms or conditions for employment based on any characteristic protected under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).4 This law is broader in scope than laws in most other states because it protects a wide range of classes beyond gender and race, including, but not limited to, religious belief, national origin, affectional or sexuality, and marital or civil union. The Equal Pay Act applies to all employers regardless of the number of employees.
The Equal Pay Act codifies the common sense application that New Jersey employers may not pay a member of a protected class at a rate, including benefits, less than that paid to employees who are not members of a protected class for “substantially similar work.”5 The evaluation of substantially similar work must meet a two-part test. The test includes an analysis of an employee’s skill, effort and responsibility; and then compares wage rates based on the wage rates in all of the employer’s operations or facilities. In order to comply with the law, employers may not reduce wages, but rather must increase the pay of lower compensated employees to meet the statute’s requirements.5
Additionally, the Equal Pay Act provides unique protection from retaliation for employees who investigate potential equal pay violations.5 The Act specifically prohibits retaliation against employees for: “requesting from, discussing with, or disclosing to any other employee or former employee of the employer, a lawyer from whom the employee seeks legal advice, or any government agency” equity pay information.5 Equity pay information includes the job title, category, rate of pay, benefits and protected class of the requesting employee or other employee within the organization.
Violations of the Equal Pay Act are extremely serious and carry distinctly aggravated consequences from other forms of discrimination. An aggrieved employee alleging discriminatory pay practices will be entitled to recover all damages under the LAD including compensatory damages, punitive damages if the conduct is willful and attorneys’ fees and costs. The Equal Pay Act provides a prevailing employee will be awarded treble damages in the amount of three times compensatory damages in addition to the damages available under the LAD.6
Furthermore, the Equal Pay Act extends the statute of limitations for a discriminatory pay practice from two years to six years.5 While the statute is silent on the issue, at least one federal court has said that the Act does not apply retroactively, limiting employer’s prospective liability for practices prior to the 2018 implementation date.7
Salary History Inquiry Ban8
As part of the Equal Pay Act, effective January 1, 2020, the New Jersey Legislature prohibits employers from screening job applicants based on the applicant’s salary history or requiring that an applicant’s salary history satisfy any minimum or maximum criteria. In essence, the law prohibits employers from requiring new hires to disclose past salaries. The New Jersey LAD was specifically amended so salary history inquiries by prospective employers are considered an unlawful employment practice.
The Salary History Inquiry Ban places the power to decide to disclose this information in the hands of the employee. If the applicant voluntarily, without the employer prompting or coercion, provides the employer with his or her salary history, the employer may consider salary history in determining salary, benefits and other compensation, and may verify an applicant’s salary history. Employers may also, after an offer of employment that includes an explanation of the overall compensation package, request that the applicant provide the employer with a written authorization to confirm salary history. However, employers may not consider an applicant’s refusal to volunteer information in any employment decisions.
New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act9
In 33 states, medical marijuana can be legally prescribed as medication for various medical conditions. However, despite states’ sovereign right to allow the compassionate use of marijuana, on the federal level, all marijuana use remains expressly illegal.10 The federal Controlled Substances Act classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance, akin to heroin, ecstasy and LSD.11 According to this federal law, and regardless of the applicable state law, in the federal context an individual found in possession of marijuana cannot claim medical necessity or valid possession of prescribed marijuana. Under this federal law, doctors cannot prescribe marijuana, and it cannot be utilized to clinically treat a medical condition.
The obvious resulting conflict between state and federal law has placed employers in a difficult position, especially when operating a medical practice across state lines. Employment policies and procedures must differ depending on the state in which the medical practice is located, as different rules may apply to different offices even within the same corporate structure or medical practice. The physical location of the medical office determines the applicable state law and regulations.
Federal employment laws equally offer no legal protection for employees who claim discrimination or a need for an accommodation due to marijuana use.12 Specifically, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits public discrimination based upon a disability, does not protect the medical and legal use of marijuana.13
New Jersey is one of the states that allows physicians to prescribe medical marijuana.14 In 2010, the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act allowed New Jersey physicians to prescribe medical marijuana to qualifying patients, although marijuana was not available for purchase. Since 2010, New Jersey has continuously implemented changes in the Compassionate Use Act and opened several locations for patients to legally purchase medical marijuana. On July 2, 2019, the Act was further amended and renamed the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act (CUMCA) to expand the number of New Jersey residents who can access medical marijuana as a form of clinical treatment with a physician recommendation. Throughout 2019, variations of further proposed expansion, including full recreational legalization, have been discussed, but to date, none has passed into law.
In the context of employment, the CUMCA specifically provides “[n]othing in this act shall be construed to require … an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.”15 However, the CUMCA is not the final legal doctrine governing a New Jersey employer’s treatment of marijuana. The New Jersey LAD provides expansive protections for employees against discrimination for all forms of disabilities, including mandating that employees receive reasonable accommodations for known disabilities.16 New Jersey courts have not yet fully determined the boundaries of the intersection between the CUMCA and the LAD. However, the CUMCA recognizes the potential intersection with the LAD and specifically prohibits employers from taking adverse employment actions against employees based solely on their status as medical marijuana patients.17 The amendment does allow that nothing requires employers to allow the consumption of medical marijuana during work hours. Further, employers are not required to take any action with respect to marijuana that could result in the loss of federal funding. The amended law includes a carve-out allowing employers to take an adverse employment action against a medical marijuana user if the employer’s accommodation of the employee’s or applicant’s lawful off-duty use would “violate federal law or result in the loss of a federal contract or federal funding.”18
The CUMCA also imposes new obligations on employers when an employee or applicant tests positive for marijuana. For example, the employer must provide the employee or applicant with written notice of the positive test result and allow three workdays for the employee or applicant to explain the positive drug test result by presenting a legitimate medical explanation. An acceptable explanation may include a healthcare provider’s authorization to use medical marijuana or proof of registration with the Cannabis Regulatory Commission. The notice also must inform the employee or applicant of the right to request a confirmatory retest at his or her own expense within the three-day period. If the employee fails to comply with the employer’s requests, the employer can safely take adverse employment action against the employee.
The CUMCA amendment took effect immediately in July 2019, so New Jersey employers should not delay in reviewing and updating their pre-employment drug screening application process and drug testing policies for compliance. All applicants and employees interviewed and hired after July 2019 are subject to these regulations.
Many physicians also serve as employers to their office staff. In order to ensure your medical practice is compliant with all current employment laws and your employee policies and procedures are up to date, consult with an employment lawyer or human resources professional.
Michael A. Pattanite, Jr., Esq., and Patrick F. Carrigg, Esq., are partners in Lenox Law Firm, Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
1 N.J.S.A. 34:11D-1 et seq.
2 N.J.S.A. 34:11-56a et seq.
3 N.J.S.A. 34:11-56.1 et seq.
4 N.J.S.A. 34:11-56.13.
5 N.J.S.A. 10:5-12 et. seq.
6 N.J.S.A. 10:5-13.
7 Perrotto v. Moran Advanced Materials, et. al., 2:18-cv-13825 (D.N.J. January 15, 2019).
8 N.J.S.A. 10:5-12.12.
9 National Conference of State Legislatures. (2019, October 17). Marijuana overview. www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/marijuana-overview.aspx.
10 21 U.S.C. § 810 et. seq.
11 21 U.S.C. § 812.
12 James v. City of Costa Mesa, 700 F.3d 394 (9th Cir. 2012).
13 James v. City of Costa Mesa, 700 F.3d 394, 397 (9th Cir. 2012).
14 N.J.S.A. 24:6I-4 et. seq.
15 N.J.S.A. 24:6I.
16 N.J.S.A. 10:5-2 et. seq.
17 N.J.S.A. 24:6I-6.1.
18 N.J.S.A. 24:6I-6.1(c)(2).