29

April, 2021

Cannabis Protections – NY and NJ Take Different Approaches on Employer Obligations

By Alexandra Lapes, Esq.

On March 31, 2021, New York State joined the rising number of states to fully legalize cannabis for adult users by passing the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (“MRTA”).  Enacted just a month after New Jersey’s cannabis law passed, see our previous blog article here, the MRTA clarifies and establishes workplace standards related to cannabis including the rights and protections of both employers and employees, effective immediately.  The MRTA also amends New York Labor Law to protect an employee from discrimination based on the employee’s legal use of cannabis in accordance with state law, including an employee’s use of cannabis prior to the beginning or after the employee’s work hours, off the employer’s premises, and without the use of the employer’s equipment or property.

Notably, the MRTA explicitly carves out protections for medical cannabis users and expands the state’s medical cannabis program to allow clinicians to recommend medical cannabis for any condition (previously only a limited number of diseases qualified patients for medical cannabis use).  As such, under New York’s Compassionate Care Act, employees who are “Certified Patients,” and prescribed medical cannabis are deemed to have a disability under the New York State Human Rights Law and are entitled to reasonable accommodations based on their disability. In addition, the MRTA requires medical cannabis users be provided the same rights, procedures, and protections available and applicable to injured workers under the worker’s compensation law, when such injured workers are prescribed medications that may prohibit, restrict, or require the modification of the performance of their job duties.

Nevertheless, employers are not required to allow an employee to use cannabis while at work for any reason including if prescribed by a doctor, and employers may take action against any employee related to the use of cannabis if:

  1. the employer’s actions were required by state or federal statute, regulation, ordinance, or other state or federal governmental mandate;
  2. the employee is impaired by the use of cannabis while working; or
  3. the employer’s actions would cause the employer to be in violation of federal law, or would results in the loss of a federal contract or federal funding.

“Impaired by the use of cannabis” means the employee manifests specific articulable symptoms while working that decrease or lessen the employee’s job performance or such specific articulable symptoms interfere with an employer’s obligation to provide a healthy and safe workplace, as required by state and federal law.  The MRTA does not define “specific articulable symptoms”.

Consensus on Prohibiting Work While Impaired; Divergence in the Details of Drug Testing

The New York and New Jersey cannabis laws both permit employers to enact and enforce policies pertaining to cannabis in the workplace, and employers may prohibit the use, possession, or being under the influence of cannabis while in the workplace or during work hours.  Employees’ off-duty use of cannabis in accordance with each state law creates a protected class for employees against adverse action based on lawful consumption.  Furthermore, employers in both states are permitted to take adverse action against an employee who is determined to be impaired while engaged in work responsibilities or during work hours. However, employers may not make any hiring decisions based solely upon a positive drug test result.

Under New Jersey’s cannabis law, employers who conduct drug tests per the law’s permissible reasons 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: it is conducted with scientifically reliable objective testing methods and procedures (i.e. testing blood, urine, or saliva); and a physical evaluation is conducted by a “Workplace Impairment Recognition Expert” (WIRE).

New York’s cannabis law has no similar provision or requirements and is ostensibly silent on drug testing requirements or procedures in the workplace.  While New York City employers have been explicitly banned from conducting pre-employment drug tests for cannabis since May 2020, it is unclear for employers in other parts of New York State, under what circumstances an employer may use pre-employment drug tests (unless mandated by federal law), since a positive test result cannot serve as the basis for any hiring decision.

Key Takeaways

Employers should review and update their policies and procedures to ensure compliance with their respective state cannabis law and stay alert for further guidance on interpreting and applying these laws in the workplace.  Multi-state employers should be mindful of the key jurisdictional differences that impose greater requirements on New Jersey employers when conducting drug tests for cannabis.

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17

March, 2021

ARPA Offers Financial Relief for Employers Facing NYS’s Latest COVID-19 Vaccine/Sick Leave Mandates

By Tracey I. Levy

New York State employers face yet another payroll cost challenge as the state has now mandated, as of March 12, 2021, that employees be granted up to four hours of paid leave (separate from all existing paid time off benefits) for purposes of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.  This is in addition to the state’s mandates for employers to provide up to three two-week intervals of COVID-19 sick leave, at least a portion of which must be paid by all but the smallest employers, as we have discussed in prior blog articles.

Fortunately, among the financial benefits included in the new American Rescue Plan Act (“ARPA”) are several provisions that are particularly helpful to New York State employers struggling to comply with the state’s unfunded COVID-19-related paid leave mandates.  While not mandatory, ARPA authorizes employers to claim a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for qualifying wages paid to employees for leave taken under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”).  ARPA expands the list of FFCRA-qualifying leaves, and it extends the FFCRA leave eligibility period.

Expansion of FFCRA Leave

The FFCRA was originally designed to provide employees with up to 10 days of paid sick leave for six qualifying reasons: (i) inability to work due to a government-issued quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19; (ii) inability to work due to quarantine or isolation on advice of a health care provider related to COVID-19; (iii) if the employee was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis; (iv) if an employee was caring for someone subject to quarantine for COVID-19; (v) to care for a child whose school or childcare center was closed for COVID-related reasons; and (vi) if an employee was experiencing substantially similar conditions as specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

ARPA expands that list to permit FFCRA paid sick leave for three additional reasons:

  • to take time off to get a vaccine;
  • to recover from illness or injury related to the vaccine; or
  • while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test or diagnosis because the employer requested that the employee be tested or because the employee was exposed to someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.

The FFCRA originally offered an additional benefit of 12 weeks of Emergency FMLA leave (under the Emergency Family Medical Leave Expansion Act), which comprised two weeks of unpaid, and 10 weeks of paid, leave at two-thirds of the employee’s salary, up to $200 per day.  EFMLA leave was available, however, solely for reason “v” as listed above – to care for a child whose school or childcare center was closed for COVID-related reasons.  ARPA now expands eligibility for EFMLA leave to all nine of the qualifying reasons specified above.   ARPA also increases the paid component so that an employee can receive partial salary for all 12 weeks of the leave period.

Extension of FFCRA Leave

In addition to expanding the qualifying reasons for FFCRA leave, ARPA extends the period in which an employee can qualify for the leave through September 30, 2021.  ARPA also resets the clock on the 10-day cap on eligible COVID-related sick leave as of April 1, 2021, so that employees who have already taken FFCRA qualifying paid sick leave since the start of the pandemic can take up to 10 additional days of leave for a qualifying reason subsequent to April 1, 2021.

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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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12

February, 2021

Employers Keep Getting Pounded: TAKEAWAYS for Winter 2020/21

We invite New York, New Jersey and Connecticut employers to view the latest issue of  Takeaways, our quarterly newsletter covering the most recent employment law changes.  For winter 2020/21, those include:

  • expansive protections of New York City job applicants and employees based on criminal history;
  • radical change in the employment relationship for fast food workers in New York City (also see our separate blog posting on that);
  • the most current minimum wage rates for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut;
  • the latest federal guidance on vaccinations, testing and workplace protections related to COVID-19
  • modified workplace posting standards;
  • a New York State law change on WARN Act notices and new interpretation of COVID-19 leave requirements; and
  • recent appellate court decisions on wage and hour issues in New York and New Jersey.
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26

January, 2021

NYS Employers Required to Provide Multiple Rounds of COVID-19 Paid Sick Leave

By Tracey I. Levy

Employers in New York State may have to pay employees at full salary for more than six weeks of COVID-19 leave (in addition to all other paid leave benefits offered by the employer or mandated by law) under new guidance issued by the New York State Department of Labor (“NYS DOL”) on January 20, 2021.  This is precisely the position that we flagged as a troubling open issue in our prior blog posting, Extension of FFCRA Credit Helps NYS Employers.

The NYS DOL guidance provides that if an employee who returns to work following a period of quarantine or isolation subsequently tests positive for COVID-19, the employee must submit proof of the positive test result and is not allowed to come to work.  Rather, the employee is deemed to be subject to a new mandatory order of isolation and is entitled to New York State’s paid COVID-19 leave law, irrespective of whether the employee already received a full two weeks of paid COVID-19 leave for the prior quarantine.  Similarly, if an employee has been out on COVID-19 leave due to a quarantine or isolation order and continues to test positive for COVID-19 after the end of the quarantine or isolation period, the employee cannot come to work.  Instead, upon proof of the positive test result, the employee is entitled to an additional period of COVID-19 paid leave.

In addition, if an employer mandates that an employee who is not otherwise subject to a quarantine or isolation order remain out of work due to actual or potential exposure to COVID-19 (from any source), then the employer has to continue to pay the employee’s regular salary for so long as the employer requires the employee to stay away from work or until such time as the employee actually becomes subject to a mandatory or precautionary order of quarantine or isolation.  If and when the employee is subject to a quarantine/isolation order, the clock will then begin running on the mandatory New York COVID-19 sick leave period, but the period of paid leave preceding issuance of the order will not count as part of the two-week COVID-19-leave period.

The one concession to employers offered by the new guidance is that they need not endure more than three rounds of paying COVID-19 sick leave for a quarantined employee.  Also, while the first COVID-19 paid sick leave period may arise based on the employee being subject to a COVID-19-related quarantine or isolation order for any reason, the second and third rounds must be predicated on the employee personally testing positive for COVID-19.

Employers have limited options under this new guidance.  Some attorneys have suggested that the guidance (which does not have the same force as a regulation) is subject to challenge on the grounds that it exceeds the scope of the law.  Short of commencing litigation, employers can bear the cost of the more expansively-interpreted law and look to the FFCRA tax credit to offset the costs of each employee’s first round of New York State COVID-19 paid leave.  While the tax credit is set to expire March 31, 2021, it may be extended as part of the latest federal COVID-19 relief legislation.  Notably, New York State’s COVID-19 leave is not available if an employee is able to work remotely, so employers should maximize that opportunity whenever an employee is quarantined but either has not tested positive or is experiencing few symptoms and feels well enough to work.

One other option for employers that are really struggling financially at this time may be to suspend or temporarily reduce vacation or other paid time off benefits for the duration of the pandemic so as to offset the employers’ salary continuation obligations under the COVID-19 leave law.  In most non-union situations, New York State employers are able to modify their paid time off policies at any time, provided employees continue to receive the leave time to which they are entitled by law.  Vacation and extended PTO days fall outside those statutory requirements, and employers generally have flexibility to modify those policies.  It is advisable, though, to consider the  resulting impact to employee morale, and to consult legal counsel before making any such modifications in this context.

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