21

May, 2020

Working Our Way to Normalcy: A Tri-State Guide to Reopening Your Business

By Tracey Levy and Alexandra Lapes

With the goal of getting employees back to work safely while ensuring business continuity, and in compliance with local, state, and federal laws, employers should consider the following key measures to take as New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut permit more businesses to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1 – Closely follow your local reopening status and what level your business falls into within the phases of reopening

In New York State, Governor Cuomo issued the New York Forward plan, a guide to reopening businesses in New York, which outlines that businesses can reopen in phases based on each region meeting specific health metrics.  As of May 20, 2020, seven regions (Capital Region, Central New York, Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley, North Country, Southern Tier, and Western New York) are allowed to reopen and begin phase one of reopening.  See here for a breakdown of progress on the metrics by region.

Geographic region is only the first threshold in New York, as the state also is phasing reopening by industry.  The state provides a reopen “lookup tool,” where businesses in specific industries can determine whether they are eligible to reopen.   In order to operate, employers must comply with all safety guidelines for their particular industry.  All New York employers (including essential businesses) must also, as a condition of being open:

    1. affirm that they have read and understand their obligations to operate in compliance with New York State guidance – and submit that affirmation of compliance online; and
    2. develop a business safety plan, for which the state has issued a business safety plan template. While the business safety plan does not need to be submitted to the state, it must be posted in a conspicuous location in the workplace and made available to the state Department of Health or local health or safety authorities in the event of an inspection.

The reopening lookup tool contains specific guidance for certain industries, and covered employers must also affirm compliance with those industry-specific standards.

Employers should consult the NY Forward website at www.forward.ny.gov  and applicable Executive Orders at www.governor.ny.gov/executiveorders  periodically or whenever notified of the availability of new guidance.  Employers can also visit Empire State Development’s website for frequently asked questions on how the New York Forward reopening plan impacts their business.

For New Jersey employers, on May 18, 2020, Governor Murphy announced a six-principle plan to restart New Jersey’s economy.  While New Jersey’s stay-at-home order is still in effect until further notice, the Governor announced New Jersey is in phase one of the six-principle plan but stated that a coronavirus vaccine must be widely available before New Jersey fully reopens to the “new normal.” New Jersey created a reference tool for local establishments that are open and cooperating with state guidelines, see here.

Connecticut is also taking a gradual approach, which began May 20, 2020, for those businesses that see a sustained 14-day decline in hospitalizations, have the adequate testing capacity, have a contact tracing system in place, and have procured sufficient personal protective equipment (“PPE”). Businesses eligible to reopen as of May 20 are:

  • Restaurants (outdoor only, no bar areas);
  • Offices (continue WFH where possible);
  • Museums, zoos (outdoor only);
  • Remaining retail;
  • Outdoor recreation;
  • Personal services (hair); and
  • University research.

They join already open businesses such as manufacturing, construction, real estate, utilities, essential retail, childcare, and hospitals.  Industry-specific guidelines for reopening are available here.  All businesses must self-certify online prior to opening that they are complying with safety measures.  Connecticut’s “Stay Safe, Stay Home” and all other related safety measures otherwise remain in effect, with all nonessential workers directed to work from home, and social and recreational gatherings of more than five people prohibited. To stay up-to-date on Connecticut’s guidance to reopen see here, and for answers to frequently asked questions, see here.

Additional resources are available for safety information, and guidelines at:

2 – Prepare your workplace and take necessary protective measures

All businesses should take proactive measures to ease employees’ fears of returning to work and communicate new policies, procedures, and practices specific to their workplace.  While every workplace will differ, consider the following proactive measures:

  • Prepare a workplace safety plan in compliance with federal, state, and local law. A workplace safety plan should address how the business plans to:
    • physically distance employees to ensure six feet between personnel, including limiting in-person gatherings, posting social distance markers using tape in common areas, limiting in-person meetings as much as possible and holding essential meetings in well-ventilated and well-spaced locations, limiting contact with customers, and considering shift changes or alternating lunch breaks if appropriate to the industry or business; and
    • implement protective measures for employees, including health screening before employees can return to work and subsequent daily health assessments, an exposure-response plan, maintaining adequate supply of face coverings for employees, complying with CDC hygiene and sanitation requirements with a log of who will be cleaning what and the date/time/scope of cleaning, providing hand sanitizers, soap, and paper towels to employees and those entering the workplace, and having a plan for cleaning, disinfecting, and contact tracing in the event an employee tests positive for COVID-19.
  • Communicate the safety plan to all employees. Through signage, advance communications, and ongoing training, ensure all employees and visitors in the workplace are aware of the organization’s social distance and safety protocols.

3 – Determine whether employees are eligible for modified work arrangements or accommodations, FFCRA leave, or other benefits and apply and redefine your policies fairly

Employers should review their workplace policies and update them as appropriate to address COVID-19 related personnel issues such as leave entitlements, teleworking or flexible work arrangements, the continuation of benefits, and accommodations for vulnerable employees.  In addition to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act leave, which remains in effect for covered employers until December 31, 2020, employees in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut may also be entitled to paid sick leave for COVID-19 related reasons.  See our recent issue of Takeaways and prior HR Strategy blog postings for more information on state-specific COVID-19 leave entitlements.

When restoring employees to work, employers should develop a methodology that applies consistent and nondiscriminatory criteria to determine the rehire order.  Be sure to notify state unemployment agencies of recalled workers, whether rehired or not, as employees forfeit their eligibility for continued unemployment benefits if they decline an offer of reinstatement because they are making more from unemployment.

Some employees who fall into a high-risk category for COVID-19 may request to remain on leave or continue working remotely as a reasonable accommodation.  Employers need to give such requests due consideration, as with any other accommodation request.

4 – Check for additional guidance and shifting requirements

These remain primarily unprecedented times, and the legal landscape for employers is shifting continuously.  Checking the available government links periodically is prudent, and employers should consider getting legal advice before taking employment actions.

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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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31

May, 2019

Why Local Law Matters for Westchester Employers

By: Tracey I. Levy and Alexandra Lapes

Employers in Westchester County must pay close attention to legal developments at the county level, as the past ten months have brought an unprecedented array of new mandates specific to private employers in the county, and further requirements are likely to come.  For those employers who may have overlooked it, the new mandates include paid leave benefits – first sick time and soon “safe time” leave – as well as restrictions on hiring practices – a ban on salary history inquiries, and limits on when employers can inquire about criminal history.

Earned Safe Time

Beginning October 30, 2019, employers in Westchester County must provide employees with up to 40 hours of paid safe time leave for victims of domestic violence, family offense matters, and human trafficking.  Employees are eligible for safe time leave after being employed in the county for more than 90 days in a calendar year, on a full-time or part-time basis.

Employees can use their safe leave time to:

  • attend or testify in criminal or civil court proceedings related to domestic violence or human trafficking; or
  • move to a safe location.

In providing the time, employers cannot set a minimum increment of use but can require an employee to provide reasonable documentation that leave was used for a covered purpose.  Employers must keep confidential the information an employee provides in support of a request for safe time leave, and such information cannot be disclosed without the employee’s written permission, or as required by law.  Employers must keep any health or safety records on a separate form and in a separate file from an employee’s other personnel information.

Mimicking the County’s paid sick leave procedural requirements, employers are obligated to:

  • post a copy of the law in English, Spanish and any other language deemed appropriate by the County, in a conspicuous location in the workplace; and
  • to provide employees with a copy of the law and written notice of how it applies with 90 days of the effective date and, thereafter, upon hire.

Employers face a fine of up to $500 per violation for failing to meet the notice and posting requirements.

Earned Sick Time

Since April 10, 2019, employers in Westchester must provide employees with at least one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 40 hours per year.  For employers with five or more employees, the sick time must be paid.

Employees can use their sick time:

  • to care for themselves or a family member due to illness, injury, or health condition, need for diagnosis, care, or treatment of mental or physical illness, injury, or health condition, and for preventative medical care;
  • when their place of business, child’s daycare, or child’s school closes due to public health emergency; or
  • if public health authorities deem the employee or a family member a health risk to the community because of his or her exposure to a communicable disease.

As mentioned above, in addition to providing the time, employers must also conspicuously post a copy of the law in English, Spanish and any other language deemed appropriate, as well as provide employees with a copy of the law and written notice of how it applies to them as of July 9, 2019, and, thereafter, upon hire.

An employer that willfully violates the notice and posting requirements may be subject to a fine of up to $500.

The Fair Chance to Work Act

As of March 4, 2019, Westchester County law prohibits employers from discouraging applicants with an arrest record or criminal record from applying for jobs, and from asking about arrest and criminal history on the initial employment application.

More specifically, it prohibits employers with at least four employees from:

  • making oral or written inquiries or statements related to criminal convictions or arrest records in an employment application;
  • disqualifying an applicant from employment for refusing to answer an unlawful inquiry or statement related to criminal history, or
  • specifying qualification criteria based on criminal history in a job advertisement.

Employers can inquire about criminal history after the stage of the initial employment application, but the law requires that employers conduct a relevance analysis under Article 23A of the New York Correction law before making a hiring decision based on an applicant’s adverse criminal history.  An applicant who is denied employment based on criminal history may request a written statement from the employer that details the reasons for the adverse employment decision.

The law recognizes two limited exceptions to the restrictions on criminal history inquiries:

  • when the employer is subject to “state, federal or county law that required criminal background checks for employment purposes or bars employment based on criminal history”; or
  • when the applicant is applying for a position at a law enforcement agency, or as a police/ peace officer.

Employers face fines up to $10,000 for willful, wanton, or malicious violations, backpay and compensation, as well as costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.

The Wage History Anti-Discrimination Law

As of July 9, 2018, employers in Westchester have been prohibited from:

  • relying on a prospective employee’s current or prior wage history when determining the wages for a prospective employee, unless the information is voluntarily provided by the prospective employee to support a wage higher than the one being offered by the employer;
  • requesting or requiring that prospective employees disclose current or prior wage information as a condition of being interviewed, considered, or offered employment; and/or
  • seeking wage information from any current or former employer of the prospective employee.

If a prospective employee responds to an offer by providing his or her wage information to support a wage higher than the one offered by the employer, the employer may only seek to confirm that wage information from a current or former employer after obtaining written authorization from the prospective employee.

Employers are prohibited from retaliating or refusing to hire an individual based upon their salary history or because they exercised their rights under the law.

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