November 27, 2018
As we are now in the middle of the holiday season, it is worth noting a recent, interesting decision concerning an employer’s obligation to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs. In Miller v. The Port of Authority, 15-cv-6370 (KM)(MAH), the District Court rejected a worker’s suit that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (the “Port Authority”) failed to accommodate his religious beliefs that precluded him from working on the Sabbath.
There are two types of religious discrimination, a disparate treatment claim (where an employee claims he is being treated differently because of his religion) and a claim for a failure to accommodate. In Miller, plaintiff argued the latter, that his request for an accommodation was rejected by his employer. In contrast, the employer argued that it offered various options to Miller, including the option to swap shifts with other employees, or that he could use vacation, personal excused time or compensatory time for religious purposes. The Port Authority also argued that exempting Miller from work on the Sabbath, without first offering that option to more senior employees, would have violated the governing collective bargaining agreement’s (“CBA’s”) seniority provision. The Hon. Kevin McNulty held that the religious accommodation offered by the Port Authority was reasonable and that the blanket exemption proposed by plaintiff would have imposed more than a de minimis hardship. Therefore, the employer was not required to accept it, and granted summary judgment in favor of defendant.
Judge McNulty’s decision is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it notes that “the standard imposed on employers for a religious accommodation is not as demanding as the accommodation of a disability required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.” As noted above, the Court held that an accommodation would impose an “undue hardship” if it would impose more than a de minimis burden on the employer. “Such a burden may take the form of economic costs, but may also include non-economic costs, such as damage to employee morale or compromise of a CBA …” Second, the decision confirms that an employer’s accommodation proposal simply must be “reasonable.” It is not required to totally eliminate any conflict and an employer is not required to accommodate the religious practices of an employee in exactly the way the employee would like. Third, while noting that the Third Circuit Court of Appeals hasn’t endorsed the approach, Judge McNulty held that an employer could offer a combination of accommodations, and found that what the Port Authority offered was reasonable.
October 8, 2018
The Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act (“the Act”) is unique from other employment anti-discrimination laws in New Jersey which creates a compliance nightmare for employers. It is important to understand the four main differences of the Act and the challenges they bring.
First, the Act is not an equal pay for equal work law. It is actually an equal compensation for substantially similar work law. Employees, who are in those categories protected from employment discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”), must receive not only equal pay, but also equal employment benefits, (i. e., insurances, retirement plans, paid time off, severance pay, etc.), when these protected employees perform substantially similar work as employees who are not protected by the NJLAD. This comparison must be made based on a composite considerations of skill, effort and responsibility.
“Similar work” is not the same as equal work. Similar work means almost or nearly the same work. And “substantially” means in most respects but not in all. Consequently, if an employee, who is in a category protected by the NJLAD, performs almost the same work in most respects as an employee who is not in a protected category, then this protected employee must receive equal salary and all other benefits of employment.
Deciding what equal work is appears to be an easy task by comparison to this type of analysis which an employer must perform to ensure compliance with the Act.
Secondly, the Act is not an anti-discrimination law for women in the workforce. It was initially proposed as such but, as ultimately enacted, it applies to all approximately 14 categories of employees who are protected against employment discrimination by the NJLAD. (Just some of these protected categories include, in addition to women, race, color, national origin, age, religion, disability, family and marital status, veterans status, and sexual orientation, among others.) This means that an employer with any degree of diversity in its employees must analyze its entire workforce to ensure compliance with the Act.
Third, the Act does not appear to require that the employer have any intent to discriminate. Apparently, for an employer to have violated the Act, an employee need only prove that he/she is a member of a protected category under the NJLAD; that the employee performed substantially similar work as another employee who is not in a protected category; and that this protected employee received less compensation, in salary and/or in any benefits of employment, as the employee not in a protected category.
Admittedly, an employer can raise three defenses: that the differential in compensation is due to a seniority system, a merit system, or some legitimate, bona fide and job-related difference(s) in characteristics between the employees in the protected categories and those that are not so protected. For example, inequality in compensation does not violate the Act if it is directly and wholly the result of job-related differences in training, education, experience or the quantity and quality of production. Obviously in many situations these differences will be subjective; difficult to measure; will require extensive supporting documentation developed over time; and the burden will be on the employer to prove them.
Fourth, the most distinctive and troublesome aspect of the Act is what actions employers must take to comply with it. For most employment discrimination laws an employer need only adopt a personal policy to implement the law, and then follow the policy wherever situations arise to which the law applies. But with the Act, an employer needs to implement and maintain, on an on-going basis, a comprehensive compliance plan.
The plan necessitates a comparative evaluation of the education, training, knowledge/skills and experience of each employee and their individual productivity; an analysis of the duties, tasks and responsibilities of each position in the workforce; then a determination of which employees in which positions are performing substantially similar work. Once these substantially similar employees are identified, then the final step, undoubtedly the easiest, is to determine if the salary and other benefits of these employees are equal as between protected and non-protected categories of employees under the NJLAD. (The employer cannot reduce the compensation of the higher paid substantially similar employee; but must raise the compensation of the lower paid employee).
Such an in-depth analysis of an entire workforce is a monumental task for an employer, even with a fully staffed HR Department. We appreciate the even greater difficulty for an employer with far less HR resources. Nevertheless, the need for compliance is of paramount importance because of the severe penalties for a failure to do so. These include trebel damages (i.e., the employee receives three dollars for each dollar of equal compensation which the employee did not receive in violation of the Act), and the employer having to pay the employees attorneys’ fees.
In addition, the Act provides a six (6) year statute of limitations, and allows an employee to potentially claim damages for even a longer period of time in the past under the “discovery rule.” This rule means that the six (6) year statute of limitations only begins to run after the employee discovers that he/she was not paid equally. Finally, a separate violation of the statute occurs each time the employer issues a paycheck which is less than equal pay for substantially similar work.
The “bottom line” is that, while implementing a compliance plan for the Act may be a nightmare, failure to comply could be a real life horror show for any employer.