7

March, 2021

NJ Employers Need Special Expert’s Sign-Off Before Disciplining Based on a Positive Test for Cannabis

By Alexandra Lapes

On February 22, 2021, after nearly three years of deliberation, New Jersey became the 15th state to fully legalize cannabis for recreational and medical use.  That legalization process includes new employment law protections to users of cannabis products in certain circumstances and places significant constraints on drug testing of applicants and employees.

How We Got Here

During the November election, 67% of New Jersey voters had approved a ballot measure legalizing adult-use cannabis and a state constitutional amendment was adopted on January 1, 2021, pending regulation by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission to establish a regulated marketplace for cultivation, distribution, and the sale of cannabis.  However, lawmakers then discovered discrepancies in the legislation that were interpreted as legalizing cannabis for children and did not sign the cannabis measures into law until they reached an agreement on a clean-up bill.  In total, three adult-use cannabis reform measures were signed into law, namely, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act (“NJCREAMMA” or “legalization bill”), the decriminalizing marijuana and hashish possession bill (“decriminalization bill”), and the “clean-up bill,” clarifying cannabis use and possession penalties for individuals younger than 21 years old.

The decriminalization provisions of the cannabis bills took effect immediately upon signature.  The provisions affecting the employment relationship are not effective until the Cannabis Regulatory Commission provides rules and regulations, which is mandated within 180 days after the bill was signed into law, or within 45 days of appointment of all members of the commission, whichever is later.

Provides a New Protected Class

The NJCREAMMA prohibits employers from refusing to hire any person, or discharging, or taking any adverse action against an employee, because they use cannabis products, and explicitly protects employees from being subject to any adverse employment action solely because they have tested positive for cannabinoid metabolites.*  This is a change from prior versions of the bill, which had explicitly permitted employers to take adverse action against an employee for use of cannabis or cannabis items in certain circumstances.  While the new law thus creates a protected class for cannabis users in New Jersey, employers are still permitted to maintain drug and alcohol-free workplaces and policies, and employers can discipline employees who engage in some other prohibited conduct under the law, such as being under the influence, possessing, selling, or transporting cannabis while in the workplace.

Drug Testing Requirements

The NJCREAMMA does not require employers to drug test employees who they believe have engaged in prohibited conduct under the employer’s policy.  Instead, the law explicitly permits employers to drug test:

  • upon reasonable suspicion of an employee’s usage of a cannabis item while engaged in the performance of the employee’s work responsibilities;
  • upon finding any observable signs of intoxication related to usage of a cannabis item;
  • as random screening;
  • as pre-employment screening;
  • as regular screening of current employees to determine use during work hours; or
  • following a work-related accident subject to investigation by the employer.

The employer may then use the results of that drug test when determining the appropriate employment action concerning the employee, provided the drug test satisfies two prescribed requirements, specifically, that:

1. it is conducted with scientifically reliable objective testing methods and procedures (i.e. testing blood, urine, or saliva); and

2. a physical evaluation is conducted by a “Workplace Impairment Recognition Expert” (WIRE).

A WIRE is an individual with the necessary certification to opine on the employee’s state of impairment or lack of, related to the usage of cannabis.  To obtain a WIRE certification, an individual must be trained to detect and identify an employee’s use of cannabis items or other intoxicating substances and assist in the investigation of workplace accidents.  The Cannabis Regulatory Commission is tasked with creating minimum standards and courses of study available for full or part-time employees or others contracted to provide services on behalf of the employer, to become certified as a WIRE.

Drug and Alcohol-Free Workplaces Permitted

The NJCREAMMA states that employers are not required to amend, repeal, or otherwise affect an employer’s policy and efforts to maintain a drug and alcohol-free workplace, and employers are expressly permitted to implement and continue to enforce policies that prohibit the use, possession, or being under the influence of cannabis while in the workplace or during work hours. The NJCREAMMA also does not require an employer to permit or accommodate any personal use of cannabis activities in the workplace, and employers may take adverse employment action against any individual found to be engaging in any prohibited conduct under a workplace policy.  In addition, if the requirements of the NJCREAMMA would result in a provable adverse impact on an employer who is subject to a federal contract, then the employer may revise its employee prohibitions consist with federal law, rule, and regulations.

Questions Left Unanswered

The law is voluminous and leaves many questions unanswered about the practical implications of these new cannabis protections.  For example, if an employer suspects someone of coming to work with their ability impaired, must the employer send the employee for a drug test before taking further responsive action, or can the employer opt out of drug testing?  If the employer opts not to drug test, can it discipline or fire the person based on perceived impairment?

Clearly, if an employer does drug test, the WIRE certification is required.  However, there appear to be two competing provisions in the statute on whether a drug test is required before an employer can take any adverse employment action against an employee who comes to work apparently under the influence of cannabis.  One provision indicates that an employer is still permitted to maintain a drug and alcohol free workplace and can have policies that prohibit use of cannabis items or intoxication by employees during work hours, while another provision suggests that the WIRE certification process is not only intended for purposes of determining the reliability of a positive drug test but also to balance employers’ interest in maintaining a drug and alcohol free workplace with employees’ interest in not being improperly disciplined or discharged.

If the latter interpretation applies, then the law holds employers to a higher proof standard before taking adverse action against a cannabis user than in the event someone reports to work under the influence of alcohol.   If the former applies, then the greater protection for cannabis users only kicks in when an employer chooses to administer a drug test to an individual who is believed to be impaired, and the WIRE process essentially is meant to discourage employers from relying solely on drug tests.  Employers will need to await regulatory guidance to clarify the circumstances under which an employer needs to involve a WIRE.

Employers should review and revise their drug testing policies and procedures now to ensure they do not include any outright bans on cannabis use that are inconsistent with the NJCREAMMA and be alert for further regulations on certification standards set by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which may require further updates to employer policies and practices.

*Editor’s note: This article was updated 3/15/21 to correct a misstatement regarding the scope of the protection against adverse action.

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30

November, 2020

Three Key Employment Items to Address Before the New Year

By Tracey I. Levy and Alexandra Lapes

As the new year quickly approaches, employers should aim to update their policies and practices to stay legally compliant and prepare their workforce for the new year.   In particular, employers in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey need to ensure they are complying with harassment prevention training requirements, have updated their sick and safe leave and their harassment and discrimination prevention policies, and have updated their procedures to meet new notice, payroll, and tracking requirements.

1. Training

This is year two for meeting the annual New York State and New York City interactive sexual harassment prevention training requirements.  Employers that have not yet conducted training this year should make that a priority before year-end to remain in compliance at both the state and city levels.  Note, for new hires, New York City requires employers with 15 or more employees to conduct initial training within their first 90 days, and all other New York employers are subject to the state’s requirement for training to be conducted as soon as practicable after hire.  When conducting the training, employees must be provided with a copy of the employer’s sexual harassment prevention policy, training materials, and a notice of employee rights.

Connecticut employers are also required to conduct sexual harassment prevention training, and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities recently extended that deadline to January 1, 2021.  Employers with three or more employees must train all their employees, while the smallest employers need only train those in a supervisory role.  Meeting this training obligation will satisfy an employer’s legal requirements for the next ten years as to existing employees, but on an ongoing basis, new hires need to be trained within six months after they are hired.

2. Policies

Employers should review and revise their employee handbook policies on sick and safe leave, harassment prevention, and anti-discrimination, to ensure compliance with recent changes in the law.

  • Sick and safe leave
    • New York State adopted a state-wide paid sick leave law (in addition to the pandemic-related paid leave law), that requires employers to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave per year, depending on the size of the employer.
    • New York City expanded its paid sick leave law to mirror and expand upon the state law provisions. The amendments will require New York City employers to update their paid leave policies to reflect the new updated accrual amounts and eliminate certain eligibility and waiting period requirements, as well as to add “domestic violence” as an additional basis for taking leave.
    • While Westchester County has its own paid sick leave law, the county has posted a notice on its website that the state law now governs paid leave and employers should refer to the state law for their rights and obligations. Note that there is no similar notice with regard to the Westchester County paid safe leave law, and employers should therefore assume that the safe leave law’s separate paid leave requirements are still in full force.
  • Harassment and discrimination prevention
    • Employers in New York State should update their harassment prevention policies to reflect the State Human Rights Law’s new definition of sexual harassment.
    • New York State employers must also update their policies to provide employees with appropriate notice of their rights and remedies with regard to reproductive health decisions, including a prohibition against discrimination and retaliation based on an employee’s or an employee’s dependent’s reproductive health decision-making.

3. Notice Requirements

The following payroll and tracking procedures must be put in place, in addition to meeting new notice and posting requirements.

  • Payroll and Tracking
  • New York State employers must:
    • Maintain paid sick leave records for no less than six years; and
    • Be prepared to timely provide employees with a summary of the amount of sick leave accrued and used upon request.
  • New York City employers must additionally provide:
    • Accrual, usage, and paid sick leave balance information to employees each pay period;
    • Written notice by January 1, 2021 (see notice link here) of employees’ paid sick leave rights at hire and to current employees of organizations with 100 or more employees, and conspicuously post that notice; and
    • Retain compliance records for at least three years.
  • Westchester County employers must additionally provide:
    • A Notice of Employee Rights and a copy of the County’s Safe Leave Law to all new hires; and
    • Display the required Safe Time poster both in English and Spanish, in a conspicuous location.
  • New Jersey employers with 10 or more employees must ensure they have:
    • Updated their payroll statements to ensure that they each specify: the employee’s gross and net wages; the employee’s rate of pay; and, for hourly employees, the number of hours worked during the pay period.
  • Job Protection
  • New Jersey employers must have conspicuously posted (as of April 1, 2020), two notices regarding employee misclassification.
  • Connecticut employers must provide information on the illegality of sexual harassment and remedies available to new hires within three months of their start date and send this information to each employee.
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8

March, 2020

Managing Workplace Epidemics: Coronavirus Concerns in Westchester County and New York City

By Tracey I. Levy, Esq. and Alexandra Lapes, Esq.

As the global Coronavirus situation is expanding rapidly and hitting close to home, Westchester County and New York City employers should review their communicable disease plans and implement preventative measures to limit the potential effect of illness in the workplace.

Key strategies for employers in preparing and responding to a Coronavirus outbreak are:

  1. Implement a communicable disease policy

If your organization has not done so already, HR professionals should devise a communicable disease policy and prevention plan in case the outbreak directly impacts their workplace.  An effective policy should identify and communicate the organization’s objectives and address workplace safety precautions, such as employee travel restrictions, mandatory reporting of exposure, reporting to public health authorities, employees quarantined or in isolation, and facility shutdowns.

Employers should also establish policies to encourage employees who feel sick to stay home, post reminders on proper handwashing and coughing/sneezing practices and make hand sanitizers and tissues available throughout the workplace. Remind employees of relevant policies that may provide them with paid time off in these circumstances, including time off under Westchester County’s Earned Sick Leave Law and New York City’s Earned Sick and Safe Time Act, as discussed below.

  1. Make sure not to discriminate

Because of the heightened risk that COVID19 presents for individuals with underlying medical conditions, in the course of implementing a communicable disease policy or administering a response to the current Coronavirus threat employers may learn, inadvertently or otherwise, of latent disabling conditions impacting some of their employees.  Employers should treat all such information as confidential, and take care not to engage in any actions that could be perceived as discriminating based on a disability.

Employers also should avoid, and take measures to prevent, any harassment or discriminatory actions that target individuals who may be associated with an ethnic or religious group, or who have relatives from a particular country, that has been more substantially impacted by the spread of the virus.  Employment policies should be consistent with public health recommendations, as well as local, state, and federal workplace laws.

  1. Consider alternative work arrangements

Encourage sick employees to stay home and focus on their health, and recovering employees or those who have been asked to self-quarantine to do so.  Consider flexible work schedules to limit the number of workers in the same work area or worksite, reduce exposure during commutes on mass transit at peak times, and reduce face-face contact.  Use virtual work environments to replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences. Leverage remote access solutions where logistically possible to enable healthy employees to stay productive in the event the workplace or specific individuals are subject to a quarantine.

  1. Advise employees before traveling

Employers should continuously check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices for the latest guidance and recommendations for each country to which an employee may need to travel.  Advise employees to check themselves for symptoms before travelling and notify their supervisor if they need to stay home.  If an employee becomes sick while travelling or on temporary assignment, ensure the employee understands to notify a supervisor and promptly call a local health care provider.  New Yorkers can call the State hotline at 1-888-364-3065, and for Westchester County COVID-19 information call 211.

  1. Manage employee benefits and compensation

Non-exempt employees must be paid overtime compensation if they work in excess of 40 hours in a workweek while covering for other employees absent due to the Coronavirus.  Time spent working from home or through other remote work arrangements also is compensable.

Most employees in Westchester County and New York City will be eligible for up to five days of paid sick leave, under local paid sick leave laws, if they personally contract the Coronavirus, their workplace is closed due to a public health emergency, they are caring for a family member who has contracted the virus, or they are caring for a child whose school or childcare provider is closed due to a public health emergency.

Employers should consider whether, independent of any available paid leave time, they want to continue to pay employees for all or some portion of the time that they are unable to or are precluded from working because of the Coronavirus.  While some organizations have suggested leave donation plans as a means of encouraging sick employees to stay home if they have exhausted their paid time-off benefits, such programs need to be carefully considered.  If not appropriately structured, the donated time can have tax consequences for the donor and the recipient.  Further, the benefits of such a program for small and mid-size employers may prove to be few or fleeting in the context of a pandemic, as donated time may benefit the first to fall ill, but then leave little in the bank for the donors and others who later contract the disease.

New York State Paid Family Leave is available for employees who may need to care for a close family member with a serious health condition.  However, the state defines a “serious health condition” as an “illness, injury, impairment, physical or mental condition requiring inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or inpatient/outpatient residential health facility;” or “continuing treatment or supervision by a health care provider.”  Under this definition, care of a family member who is hospitalized due to Coronavirus or who has complications from the virus due to an underlying medical condition, such as asthma or respiratory disease, likely would be covered.  Care of a family member who experiences milder Coronavirus symptoms, more akin to the flu, likely would not be covered.

  1. Stay informed on changes to state and local law

Local paid sick leave laws in Westchester County and New York City present some additional challenges for employers.  The laws permit employers to require employees to provide documentation from a health care provider after three consecutive sick days, but employers may not require the health care provider to specify the medical reason for sick leave.  Employers need to balance this provision against the need to be informed, for public safety reasons, if an employee has been diagnosed with the Coronavirus or is being quarantined so as to take appropriate precautions to prevent the further spread of the virus throughout the workplace.  Also, the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises employers not to require medical certification at this time to validate employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness, as they anticipate healthcare providers and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation.

Notably, while it has been widely reported that New York State Governor Cuomo plans to amend New York State’s paid sick leave bill to deal with the Coronavirus, there currently is no state-wide paid sick leave law in New York.  Paid sick leave at the state level is simply proposed legislation that needs to make its way through the legislative process and, even if enacted, as proposed the law would not take effect until April 2021.

  1. Employee morale and business continuity

Lastly, employers should endeavor to communicate information to employees about their organization’s communicable disease plan, efforts to reduce the risks of contagion in their workplace, and policies and benefits for those who are directly impacted by the Coronavirus.

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12

August, 2019

New York State Amends Other HRL Discrimination Protections – Broad Protections Expanded Well Beyond Sexual Harassment

By Tracey I. Levy, Esq. and Alexandra Lapes, Esq.

Just over a year after New York enacted sweeping protections against sexual harassment, Governor Cuomo today signed into law further amendments to the New York State Human Rights Law to provide more expansive protections for employees based on any protected characteristic.

SPECIAL ALERT – IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED

Distribute Policy for Harassment Prevention Training

Of most immediate concern, employers who are racing to comply with the October 9 deadline for year one of harassment prevention training should note that, effective immediately, employers are mandated to distribute a copy of their sexual harassment prevention policy at every training session, as well as at hire, both in English and in the employee’s primary language.

Other Significant Changes

In addition to the policy distribution requirement, New York State’s new law extends the Human Rights Law’s requirements to employers of any size, as well as domestic workers, and expands the law’s protections to contractors, consultants and vendors who can show the employer knew or should have known of discrimination directed at them and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action that was within its ability.

In addition, the new law:

  • Broadly defines unlawful harassment as subjecting an individual to inferior terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of an individual’s protected characteristic(s);
  • Eliminates the employee’s obligation to prove that harassing conduct is severe and/or pervasive;
  • Declares that an employee need not show that a comparative individual was treated more favorably;
  • Mandates that the state’s Human Rights Law be construed liberally, regardless of how comparable federal or other states’ laws may be interpreted; and
  • Eliminates the employer’s ability to defend the complaint on the grounds that the employee failed to raise an internal complaint;
  • But it permits employers to defend a claim by proving that the harassing conduct does not rise above the level of what a reasonable person in the shoes of the plaintiff would consider petty slights or trivial inconveniences.

For most employers, these changes will not require any revisions to their existing harassment prevention policy.  However, the “sidewalks” that most policies build around the legal standards have now gotten much narrower, and the amendments collectively make it significantly easier for an employee to support a legal claim of unlawful harassment.  Procedurally, the law increases the remedies available in litigation to include punitive damages and attorneys’ fees for a prevailing plaintiff (while an employer can seek recovery of its attorneys’ fees only if it shows the case was frivolous); and extends the statute of limitations for sexual harassment claims from one to three years.  With the exception of the change in the statute of limitations (which takes effect one year after enactment of the new law), all these changes take effect within the next 60 to 180 days.

Moving beyond litigation, the new law expands the confidentiality and mandatory arbitration clause restrictions adopted last year for sexual harassment claims to now apply to any claim of harassment or discrimination under the Human Rights Law, and it voids out any confidentiality clause to the extent it precludes participation in a government agency investigation or impedes a complainant’s filing for unemployment insurance, Medicaid or other public benefits.  As of January 1, 2020, any non-disclosure provision to which a complainant affirmatively consents must include language confirming that it does not prevent the employee from speaking with law enforcement, a human rights enforcement agency, or an attorney.

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9

July, 2018

Moving Forward After #MeToo – Consider Your Policies

Recent changes to New York State law regarding prevention of sexual harassment will require employers to revisit existing policies to comply with newly-mandated provisions, as summarized in our lead story from Takeaways, Spring 2018.  But looking beyond the state law, one key lesson to be derived from the #MeToo movement is that workplace policies prohibiting harassment must also emphasize power disparities.  The common thread in so many of the #MeToo-type incidents reported in the media is the use of, or perceived threat to use, power to objectify or demean someone.   This power-based focus is not just limited to gender; it plays out in interactions between individuals of different races, national origin, religions, sexual orientation and other protected classes, and thus it should be emphasized in any policy prohibiting harassment, not just those pertaining to sexual harassment.

Power disparities also are not limited to supervisor-subordinate relationships.  Consider a new hire being shown the ropes by an employee with five or ten years of experience.  Those individuals may be peers on an organization chart, but there still is a power disparity that can cause the new hire to feel uncomfortable objecting to offensive behavior.

Other times, the behavior at issue may not fall into the category of actionable harassment based on a protected characteristic.  Sometimes the behavior is just demeaning and abusive on an individual or group level.

Regardless of whether the behavior would give rise to a legal claim, the nature of such conduct can be corrosive in the work environment.  It can undermine morale, loyalty and productivity.  One step in addressing that is to add a clear, express statement in your anti-harassment policy that you will not tolerate the use of, or perceived threat to use, power to objectify or demean someone based on a protected class.  Employers that want to go further than the law can build on that with an anti-bullying or workplace conduct policy emphasizing that actual or perceived misuse of power, including abusive behavior, is not acceptable and grounds for disciplinary action.

Employment policies need to comply with legal requirements, but employers have the option of holding employees to a higher standard of behavior.  Updating policies to incorporate lessons learned from #MeToo is an important step in that process.

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