Due in large part to the coronavirus, 2020 was a challenging year for most employers, and many of those challenges continue into 2021. The increasing availability and administration of vaccines has helped to resolve some challenges, but also presented some new ones. In addition, Congress and the New Jersey State Legislature, have enacted numerous new or modified requirements on employers, some related directly to the coronavirus and COVID19, and others unrelated, but all relevant and impactful on how New Jersey employers manage their workplaces. Among the changes to be aware:
Vaccinations and Work
With the high rate of vaccine availability in many parts of New Jersey, many employers are wondering whether they can ask their employees if they have been vaccinated, if they can require that employees be vaccinated in order to return to work, and whether they can require proof of vaccinations. Fortunately for employers, the guidance from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that employers may require all employees be vaccinated before returning to work, may ask employees if they have been vaccinated, and may require proof of vaccination. However, employers should not ask employees, who are not vaccinated, to state why they are not vaccinated.
Full COBRA Premium Subsidy
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), which became law on March 11, 2021, provides a 100% subsidy of premiums for employees to continue their health insurance coverage under the federal law known as COBRA. The subsidy remains in place through September 30, 2021, with employers recouping the cost of premiums through Medicare tax credits, rather than collecting from employees and former employees. Employees qualify for the COBRA premium subsidy if they lost coverage due to a pandemic-related reduction in hours or an involuntary loss employment. Employers must treat “assistance-eligible individuals,” who have COBRA coverage during the six-month subsidy period, as having paid their premiums in full.
Increase in Minimum Wage
In accordance with New Jersey’s Minimum Wage Law, minimum wage increased to $12.00 per hour, marking the next step in the progression of raising minimum wage in New Jersey to $15.00 per hour by the year 2024. For employees who are compensated through tips, per piece produced, or subject to other exemptions based on industry, the following specific wage increases will apply:
- Base wage for tipped employees: $4.13 per hour
- Employers with fewer than six employees: $11.10 per hour
- Seasonal employers: $11.10 per hour
- Direct care staff at long-term care facilities: $15 per hour
Employers’ Expanded Notice Period and Severance Pay Obligations Delayed
In January 2020, Governor Phil Murphy signed several amendments to the NJ WARN Act (technically called the Millville Dallas Airmotive Plant Job Loss Notification Act). Those amendments expanded the definition of “mass layoff,” increased the employer notice period from 60 to 90 days, and requires that employers provide severance payments equal to one week’s pay for each full year of service. The amendments originally were scheduled to take effect on July 19, 2020, but due to the pandemic, the Legislature passed, and Governor Murphy signed into law, Bill 2353, which delayed the effective date of the amendments to 90 days after the Governor declares an end to the current state of emergency.
Expansion of Family Leave Entitlements
The New Jersey Legislature amended the New Jersey Family Leave Act (NJFLA) several times since the law’s enactment in 1989, but the NJ Division on Civil Rights (DCR), the administrative agency responsible for administering the NJFLA, has not updated its regulations to keep pace with the amendments. Therefore, the NJDCR issued new proposed regulations in March to address numerous topics covered by these amendments, including: broadening the definition of family member; expanding the application of the NJFLA to include employers with 30 or more employees (down from 50 or more); expanding the permissible reasons for taking family leave to include circumstances where a family member is required to isolate or quarantine because of exposure to communicable-disease related public health emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, or to care for children, whose school or child care provider is closed for similar reasons; and limiting an employer’s right to deny family leave to a key employee taking leave related to such public health emergencies. The proposed regulations were published on March 1, 2021 and allowed for a 60-day period for public comment. The DCR now has until January 2022 to issue final regulations, although the Agency’s intent is to issue the regulations sometime during the current calendar year. The revised regulations are intended to clarify the changes approved by the Legislature, rather than further amending the NJFLA.
Legalization of Recreational Marijuana Use
New Jersey voters chose to legalize the possession and use of marijuana for recreational use by adults age 21 and older, effective this past January. While the State’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission will oversee the new adult marijuana market, the New Jersey Legislature and local governments will oversee and impose additional regulations going forward. Once the rules are in place, New Jersey employers will be faced with new issues in attempting to regulate or monitor the use of this lawful controlled substance by employees. Although in some respects, legal use of marijuana is similar to the lawful use of alcohol, the differences between alcohol and marijuana use will create new challenges for employers.
Employment law changes in 2021 can create complex new requirements for all types of employers, ensuring that policies are updated, supervisors are trained, and systems are adapted to ensure employees’ rights are protected and employers do not incur liability due to a lack of understanding and compliance. The experienced employment law attorneys at Weiner Law Group will evaluate and recommend what changes you need to make to your current policies and practices to ensure that they remain in compliance with state and local laws. Weiner Law Group is an AV Rated firm representing businesses and their owners, as well as non-profits and public entities in all aspects of labor and employment law for New Jersey employers. Contact us for more information or to arrange for a consultation.
About the Author
Douglas S. Zucker, Esq. of Weiner Law Group focuses his practice primarily representing private and public sector employers, with a focus on public libraries, and not-for-profit organizations in all aspects of labor and employment law, and in providing counseling to executives on employment and post-termination release agreements. Many of Mr. Zucker’s clients are small to mid-sized and closely held businesses, for which he also performs a variety of services, involving business contracts, general business and corporate issues, and commercial litigation. Contact Mr. Zucker at 973-403-1100.