Levy Employment Law Blog

20

March, 2022

COVID Mandates Have Lessened But Employers Still Have Obligations

By Alexandra Lapes and Tracey I. Levy

New York State employers may now suspend implementation of their infectious disease prevention plans (otherwise known as HERO Act plains), as the state’s order designating COVID-19 as a highly contagious communicable disease expired on March 17, 2022 and thus far has not been extended.  As COVID-related mandates have largely been lifted or expired across the tri-state, employers are once again left in a state of uncertainty – after two years of massive regulations, what is still required and where do employers have discretion to act independently in responding to the pandemic?  The short answer is that it varies, and we have endeavored to summarize the current state as of March 2022.

COVID-Related Restrictions and Current Effect

CDC Guidelines Applicable Throughout the County

The CDC continues to require individuals who are two and older to wear a face mask on public transportation and conveyances such as trains and airplane.  Outside that context, the CDC maintains its distinction between those who are and those who are not vaccinated, and recommends that unvaccinated people continue to wear a face mask at public events and gatherings around other people.

New York State and New York City

Masks are no longer mandatory in most settings

Effective as of February 10, 2022, Governor Hochul lifted the indoor mask-or-vaccine mandate for all private sector employers in New York State.  As a result, most employers now have discretion as to whether and when to require face coverings.  However, in addition to the CDC mandate for public transportation, masks are still required for certain high-density and particularly vulnerable settings, including all health care settings regulated by the Department of Health and other related state agencies, nursing homes, adult care facilities, correctional facilities, detention centers, homeless shelters, and domestic violence shelters, public transit and transportation hubs.

NYC customers need no longer prove vaccination status, but proof is still required for employees

New York City suspended the “Key to NYC” mandate as of March 7, 2022, that had required businesses to verify vaccination status as a condition of entry to indoor dining, fitness, and entertainment venues in the city.  However, through a new Mayoral Executive Order issued on March 4, 2022 and ongoing requirements by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), all employees who work in-person in New York City – for every type of employer – must provide or have provided proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to their employers.  Employers must exclude from the workplace any worker who has not provided such proof, unless an exception due to a religious or medical accommodation applies, or a worker only enters the workplace for a quick and limited purpose.

In addition to the vaccination requirement, New York City employers currently must continue to:

  • Post an official DOHMH sign in a conspicuous location at the business; and
  • Keep a record of each worker’s proof of vaccination (including ensuring employees get their second dose) and any reasonable accommodations.

Employers who previously posted a notice per the Key to NYC requirements do not need to post the DOHMH attestation sign.

New Jersey and Connecticut – Reprieve from Face Coverings

For New Jersey employers, as of March 7, 2022, the statewide mask mandate has been lifted, as the Governor signed an executive order withdrawing the declaration of COVID-19 as a public health emergency.

For most employers in Connecticut, all business sector rules enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were lifted as of May 19, 2021, with limited exceptions where face coverings were still required.  Those exceptions are still in effect in accordance with the latest order issued by the Connecticut Public Health Commissioner effective February 28, 2022, and face masks are therefore still required in schools, healthcare settings, and shelters.

Ongoing COVID Leave Obligations

Employers in New York State, New York City, and New Jersey must be aware of continuing COVID leave obligations, particularly concerning paid sick leaves, that remain in effect.  We have broken down the key pieces of COVID-related leave provisions effective in the tri-state area below.

For more information regarding NY and NJ on-going pandemic-related paid leave provisions see this blog article, and the series of COVID-19 leave articles on our blog.

Stay Informed

The news is swirling with reports of new COVID-19 variants developing, some of which may trigger future restrictions.  Therefore it is prudent for employers to continue to monitor for further updates.  We have provided links below for current standards issued at the federal, state and local levels impacting employers in the New York tri-state area.

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13

March, 2022

New Fed Arbitration Ban Warrants Employers Redouble Measures to Prevent Workplace Harassment

By Tracey I. Levy

In the aftermath of #MeToo, state legislatures across the country adopted a range of new employment law protections, typically focused around four objectives:

  • advising employees of their legal rights and obligations and how to raise concerns;
  • expanding the scope and remedies under existing laws;
  • lifting the cloak of secrecy around sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations; and
  • ensuring employees can pursue legal claims in a public judicial forum.

A new federal law, which took effect March 3, 2002, addresses the fourth objective by prohibiting forced arbitration of sexual harassment and sexual assault claims.  The new federal law raises the stakes for employers and warrants revisiting existing measures to prevent incidents of offensive sexual conduct in the workplace.

Advising Employees of Their Legal Rights

New York woke up after #MeToo and has since been at the forefront of the effort to educate employees on the prevention of sexual harassment.  The state mandated both that employers adopt sexual harassment prevention policies that include an array of specific provisions, including a written complaint form, and that they conduct annual sexual harassment prevention training for all employees.  Other states, like California and Connecticut, which had existing harassment prevention training mandates for supervisors, imposed new training requirements applicable to all employees.  And some states imposed requirements only for particular industries.  For example, Illinois targeted restaurants and bars with a requirement to have a written sexual harassment prevention policy with specific provisions, while Washington state mandates sexual harassment prevention training for businesses that employ janitors, security guards, hotel housekeepers, or room service attendants.

Expanding Legal Remedies

New York also was one of the first states to respond by expanding the application of its law against sexual harassment – to every employer in the state, and by including independent contractors within its definition of “employees.”  The initially laws myopically applied only to claims of sexual harassment but were subsequently expanded to include all other protected characteristics.  New York also legislatively defined harassment more broadly than most – to cover any situation in which an employee is subject to “inferior terms, conditions or privileges of employment” based on a protected characteristic, without need to prove that the behavior was severe or pervasive.  Other states have made similar changes, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, and Vermont.

Lifting the Cloak of Secrecy

California, New Jersey, New York and Tennessee were among the states to adopt measures restricting employers from imposing nondisclosure or confidentiality requirements in the context of settlements of sexual harassment or sexual assault claims.  Illinois, Maryland and Vermont have gone a step further, by additionally mandating that employers periodically report certain data on sexual harassment complaints to a state government agency.  Congress similarly sought to limit nondisclosure agreements by amending the tax code in December 2017 to prohibit employers from claiming a deduction for any settlement payment or attorney’s fees related to sexual harassment or abuse if the settlement was subject to a nondisclosure agreement.

Preserving the Ability to Sue in Court

Most of the same states that invalidated nondisclosure or confidentiality requirements also declared invalid any pre-dispute arbitration clause applicable to a sexual harassment claim.  Those efforts have been stymied, however, because employers generally have been successful in arguing that the state laws are preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.

Where the New Federal Law Fits In

The new federal law on arbitration of sexual harassment and sexual assault claims avoids the problem the states have faced because it falls outside the scope of the Federal Arbitration Act.  The law also is notably different in scope and import because it:

  • applies to all existing and future pre-dispute arbitration agreements throughout the country;
  • applies to all existing and future class action waiver clauses throughout the country; and
  • grants the party asserting a claim for sexual harassment or sexual assault (whether under federal, state or tribal law) the sole discretion to elect whether to proceed through arbitration or in court, and whether to pursue the claim as a class or collective action.

Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the bill’s sponsors, has been quoted as remarking that the new law will force corporate America to “up their game” and adopt new practices.

Employer Actions in a Higher Stakes Environment

Employers looking to decipher what that could mean should start with a two-fold assessment.  First, ensure that you are complying, in all your workplace locations, with the most recent state and local laws regarding harassment prevention.  In particular, confirm that your policies are current, your agreements are compliant, and that you are timely meeting all training requirements.

Second, consider the four objectives that have driven the state legislative responses.  What initiatives might you want to adopt in your workplace to enhance a culture of respect and ensure employees feel comfortable raising concerns?  Are you conducting harassment prevention training at periodic intervals?  Is your harassment prevention training program merely a check-the-compliance-box exercise, or has it been structured, scheduled and promoted to invite heightened awareness and genuine reflection?  Where still legally permissible, what are the upsides and downsides of maintaining confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements, and are they the best approach for your organization at this time of greater transparency?

No employer is immune from complaints of unlawful harassment.  But our experience has been that actions taken by employers to create and sustain a respectful workplace culture can substantially mitigate that risk and create a more productive workplace environment.

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4

February, 2022

Wait, I Have to Pay Employees for Separate COVID Leave?

By Alexandra Lapes and Tracey I. Levy

Employers in New York State, New York City, and New Jersey must be aware of continuing COVID leave obligations, particularly concerning paid sick leave, that remain in effect despite the expiration of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which had provided a tax credit to offset the cost of paid time off in these circumstances.

New York State COVID-Related Leave is Ongoing

In addition to any other type of paid or unpaid time off that an employer may offer under its policies or to comply with legal requirements, New York State employers must continue to provide time off for COVID-related reasons, such as for employees who need to take leave because they are under a mandatory or precautionary order of quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19.  New York’s separate COVID-19 sick leave has no expiration date, and as employers are slowly discovering, that means these obligations are long-lasting.

As we noted previously in a series of COVID-19 leave articles on our blog, for many employers COVID-19 sick leave must be paid, depending on the size and net income of the employer.  By way of recap, employers’ obligations for COVID-19 sick leave are determined by the number of employees as of January 1, 2020, and provide for leave as follows:

  • If the employer has 10 or less employees and a net income less than $1 million – provide unpaid job-protected leave until the termination of the order of quarantine or isolation;
  • For all other employers with 99 or fewer employees – provide at least 5 days of paid job-protected leave and additional job-protected unpaid leave until the termination of the order of quarantine or isolation; and
  • If the employer has 100 or more employees – provide 14 days of paid job-protected leave during the order of quarantine or isolation.

New York State provides no reimbursement or subsidy to employers for the paid sick leave benefits required under the law.  Notably, however, employees are not eligible for paid COVID-19 sick leave if they are able to work remotely.

NY Employees Can Take Paid COVID Leave Three Times in the Same Year

Employers in New York State are required to provide COVID-19 sick leave benefits as described above for up to three periods of covered leave per employee. However, the second and third periods of leave must be for a quarantine based on the employee’s own condition and not merely as a precaution due to exposure to others who tested position for COVID-19.

NYS STD/PFL Benefits Are Also Available for COVID-Related Reasons

New York State Short-Term Disability (STD) and Paid Family Leave (PFL) benefits are available simultaneously, with no waiting period, to employees of small and medium employers for the otherwise unpaid portion of a period of leave based on being personally subject to a government-issued quarantine or isolation order.  In other words, employers that are not required to provide more than five days of paid COVID-19 sick leave should direct their employees to apply to the state’s STD/PFL programs for paid benefits for the duration of their quarantine or isolation period.

PFL also is available for an employee to care for a child for the duration of a quarantine or isolation period, and for up to 12 weeks of leave per year for care of a family member who is sick with COVID-19 where the family member’s sickness meets the PFL definition of a serious health condition.

NY Requires Additional Paid Time Off for Vaccinations

Employers in New York State are required to grant employees up to four hours of paid time off for each shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.  Leave for vaccination must be paid at an employee’s regular rate of pay and is in addition to all other paid leaves provided by the employer.  This particular mandate of paid leave for vaccination only applies to vaccinations after its March 12, 2021 effective date, and the law is set to expire by the end of 2022.

New York City added still another paid leave obligation, and it requires employers to provide paid time off for employees’ children to be vaccinated.  Employees can use up to four hours of additional paid sick time, per child, per injection, for the vaccination itself and for care due to temporary side effects.

New Jersey Employers Have Ongoing COVID-Related Leave Requirements

New Jersey requires employers to provide paid leave under the state’s expanded New Jersey Earned Sick and Safe Leave Law (NJESSL), and this obligation is ongoing.  In addition, COVID-19 leave benefits made available to employees through New Jersey’s Family Leave Act (NJFLA) and Temporary Disability Benefits Law (NJTDBL) program remain in effect indefinitely.  While expanded in specific response to COVID-19, these amendments all turn more broadly on the declaration of a state of emergency by the governor due to an epidemic or public health emergency, and directives that an employee or the employee’s family member quarantine or isolate as a result of exposure to a communicable disease.

Notably, New Jersey expanded only the reasons why employees may qualify for NJESSL and the state’s leave benefit programs; it did not add any additional paid or unpaid leave entitlements.  Also, and perhaps for this reason, employees who are able to work remotely while subject to a quarantine order may still be eligible for these New Jersey COVID-related leave benefits, as the New Jersey law does not expressly preclude those employees from taking NJESSL for COVID-related reasons.

NJESSL Extends to Time Getting Vaccinated

The New Jersey Department of Labor has declared that employees are entitled to use NJESSL to get the COVID-19 vaccine, including travel time and recovery from side effects.  The Department created this memo for employees to provide to their employer regarding their additional rights to paid sick leave under NJESSL for COVID-19 vaccine leave, as vaccination is not listed as a reason for time off under the NJESSL law.

Takeaways

As the threat of COVID-19 persists for a third year and new variants emerge to infect more people and some people multiple times, employers in New York and New Jersey should note these ongoing pandemic-related paid leave provisions available to their employees.

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30

January, 2022

Persistent Pay Inequity Drives Legal Mandates for Employers to Publicly Post Wages Being Offered

By Tracey I. Levy and Alexandra Lapes

Five or six years ago, in speaking with a start-up client about social media policies and wage transparency, the client explained they made available to all on their intranet a spreadsheet with salary information for the company’s entire management team.  While that practice remains extraordinary even in 2022, a new report from The Conference Board and Emsi Burning Glass highlights a growing trend toward greater wage transparency.  Among the key findings from Emsi Burning Glass’s analysis of job openings reportedly posted on nearly 40,000 separate sources, including job portals and employers’ career sites, was that:

  • more than 12 percent of all such postings in fall 2021 included salary data; and
  • nearly 16 percent of all noncollege occupations in fall 2021 included salary data.

That is about a 65 percent increase in wage transparency in just 2 ½ years – since April 2019.

The Conference Board/Emsi Burning Glass report attributes much of the increase to the current competitive labor market, where wage transparency is just one of numerous proactive steps that organizations are taking to attract applicants.  State and local legislatures – notably including New York City and Connecticut – will be further fueling that trend, as new laws take effect that require wage range disclosures in the hiring process.

Pre-Existing Landscape of Wage Transparency Laws

The earliest of these laws date back to California in 2018.  The California version, as well as those passed in the subsequent two years in Washington, Maryland, and Toledo and Cincinnati, Ohio, require an employer to disclose the wage range for a position upon the applicant’s request.  Colorado took transparency to a new level in 2021, and it requires private employers to affirmatively state the wage rate or range with any job posting for a position to be performed in Colorado or remotely from another location.  Connecticut and New York City have taken Colorado’s lead, with new wage transparency laws passed just in the last seven months.

Disclosing Wage Range for Connecticut Job Postings

Effective as of October 1, 2021, Connecticut employers must provide job applicants with the wage range for the position to which the applicant is applying, even if the applicant does not inquire.  The law states that this information must be disclosed either when requested or, if no request is made, then no later than the time a job offer is made.   Connecticut further requires employers to provide this type of wage range information to current employees:

  • who change positions with the employer; or
  • at an employee’s first request.

The “wage range” to be disclosed is defined as the range of wages an employer anticipates relying on when setting wages for a position, and may include reference to:

  • any applicable pay scale;
  • a previously determined range of wages for the position;
  • the actual range of wages for those employees currently holding comparable positions; or
  • the employer’s budgeted amount for the position.

Notably, recent guidance issued by the Connecticut Labor Department clarified that the law extends to anyone who applies for a job with a Connecticut employer, even if the employee is working remotely from another state.

NYC Requires Similar Disclosure, with Less Guidance

Beginning May 14, 2022, New York City employers with at least four employees (inclusive of contractors and employed family members), may not post job listings without stating the minimum and maximum salary for the position.   Failing to include this wage range information is deemed an unlawful discriminatory practice, and the requirement extends beyond job advertisements to posted promotion and transfer opportunities.  The law states only that the wage range may include the lowest to the highest salary the employer believes in good faith at the time of the posting it would pay for the advertised job, promotion or transfer opportunity.  We anticipate that, closer to the effective date, the city will provide additional guidance regarding the appropriate measure of the wage range.

A Growing Trend

Nevada and Rhode Island have similarly passed wage transparency laws in the past year.  Both states have staked a middle ground on when such information must be disclosed, but each prioritizes a different group.  Nevada requires that wage range information be automatically provided to each job applicant who is interviewed, but only given to employees if they request the information in the context of a promotion or transfer.   Rhode Island requires that wage range information be given to job applicants if they request it and prior to discussing compensation, but requires that employees automatically be provided the wage range at time of hire, when the employee moves into a new position, and whenever the employee requests it.

Similar legislation  is currently making its way through the committee review process in New York State.  As currently drafted it would mandate disclosure of the wage range both for the internal or external posting of each job opportunity, and upon an employee’s request.  A bill pending in Massachusetts would take the more modest approach of requiring disclosure only upon the applicant’s or employee’s request.  While we are not currently aware of any similar bills pending in New Jersey, the state has taken strong legislative action in the past several years to mandate pay equity, and we anticipate that a wage transparency bill may be forthcoming.

Reconciling Theory and Reality

The desire to counter pay inequity, which persists particularly for women, people of color, and those at the intersectionality of those two characteristics, drives this legislative mandate of wage range transparency, as stated in the preamble to many of these new laws.  The theory is that equipping workers with greater information will enable them to better negotiate their pay.

A recent article in Money magazine calls that theory into question, citing the experience of Buffer, a tech start-up.  Not unlike our client from five years ago (which was not Buffer), Buffer had gained some notoriety for publishing a public spreadsheet, beginning back in 2013, that included the salaries for its entire workforce.  According to the article, the company later began analyzing its pay practices and found a gender pay gap of 15 percent in 2019.  This is just slightly better than the 18 percent pay gap reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics both in 2019 and 2020.  The article continues by noting that it was only through additional, affirmative measures taken by the company that Buffer said it was able to reduce the pay gap to 5.5 percent in 2021 – pay transparency alone, even over multiple years, had not made a difference.

Where that Leaves Employers in the Tri-State Area

Currently, employers in Connecticut have an existing obligation under the recent wage transparency law to update their job posting practices and include wage range information.  New York City employers must prepare for the May 14, 2022 effective date of the city’s pay transparency requirement.  Employers in the rest of New York State and in New Jersey should anticipate that they likely are just a few years away from having to meet similar requirements.

Moving beyond mere legal compliance, employers that are committed to pay equity should take a fresh look at their pay practices.  In the past, being a better negotiator or coming in with a higher base from a prior job were accepted explanations for differences in compensation among otherwise equally qualified employees with different protected characteristics.  The impetus behind the newest pay transparency laws suggests that there is less legislative acceptance of that explanation.  Consistent with the Emsi Burning Glass report, in this time of the “great resignation” and a ready flight of talent seeking better opportunities, employers may want to consider a different analysis and approach to their pay practices.

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17

January, 2022

NYC Pushes Emerging National Trend to Regulate AI in Hiring Decisions

By Alexandra Lapes and Tracey I. Levy

New York City is near the forefront of  an emerging trend of regulating an employer’s use of artificial intelligence in employment decisions.  Employers and HR professionals use AI to collect and scan large applicant pools for qualified candidates and to target job listings to potential applicants on websites like LinkedIn and Indeed.  Artificial intelligence tools make it possible for employers to expand their search for more qualified and diverse candidates, screen for candidates with the most advantageous skills, increase efficiency, and streamline their hiring process.

But concerns about the implications of the technology in potentially magnifying biased decision-making are leading legislative bodies to impose precautionary measures.  Illinois was the first to legislate in this area in 2019, and in 2021 there were 17 states that had proposed laws to regulate artificial intelligence.  Opponents of using artificial intelligence cite studies that tools to assess a candidates’ skills and adeptness, which are based on a predetermined set of criteria created by humans with their own implicit biases, have the potential to reproduce bias and create unfair decision-making on a much broader scale.

Further fueling the legislative trend, in October 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) launched an initiative on artificial intelligence and algorithmic fairness to examine the issue of AI, people analytics, and big data in hiring and other employment decisions.  The EEOC will establish a working group to launch a series of listening sessions with key stakeholders and gather information on the impact of AI in employment decisions, to  examine more closely how technology changes the way employment decisions are made and to ensure those technologies are used fairly and consistently with federal equal employment opportunity laws.  The EEOC ultimately plans to  issue guidance for employers to ensure fairness in AI algorithms.  In addition, the Commission has implemented extensive training for its investigators in 2021 on the use of AI in employment practices.

New York City Is at the Forefront

New York City has stepped forward with the most stringent law in the country to date, which will require that by January 2, 2023, employers only use automated employment decision making tools that were independently audited for bias no more than one year prior to their use.  The law defines an automated employment decision tool as “any computerized process, derived from machine learning, statistical modeling, data analysis, or artificial intelligence, that issues simplified output, including a score, classification, or recommendation, which is used to substantially assist or replace discretionary decision making for making employment decisions that impact natural persons.”   The “bias audit” required means an impartial evaluation by an independent auditor and must include testing to assess the tool’s disparate impact on persons in any federal EEO Component 1 form category (currently race/ethnicity and sex).

The law also imposes various disclosure requirements:

  • Website Posting – Employers must post on their website the summary of the results of the most recent audit conducted and the tool’s distribution date; and
  • Notice of usage – Applicants and employees who reside in New York City must be given 10 business days’ advance notice that the tool is being used to assist in evaluation of that individual for an employment decision, and the job qualifications and characteristics the automated tool will be using to assess the person’s candidacy.

Finally, an applicant or employee is granted the right to request an alternative selection process or accommodation be used, instead of the automated tool.

Notably, if not already disclosed publicly on the employer’s website, information about the type of data collected for the automated employment decision tool, the source of that data, and the employer or employment agency’s data retention policy, must be made available to any candidate or employee within 30 days of a written request.   Each day that an employer uses an automated assessment tool that does not comply with the law is considered a separate violation, and each time an employer fails to provide the proper notice, is subject to a penalty that ranges from $500 to $1,500 per violation.

More Such Laws Are Likely Coming

California and Washington, D.C. currently have bills pending that target the use of artificial intelligence in employment.  If passed, the D.C. law would be similar to the New York City bill, and would go even further to require a covered entity that takes adverse action in whole or in part on the results of an algorithmic eligibility determination provide the individual with a notice of any information the entity used to make the determination, provide the individual the ability to submit corrections to that information, and if the individual submits corrections, additionally they may request the entity conduct a reasoned reevaluation of the relevant algorithmic eligibility determination, conducted by a human on the corrected data.

Illinois’s law differs from New York City’s approach in that it restricts the use of video interview technology in the hiring process.  Like New York City, Illinois requires employers who use restricted AI hiring tools to disclose and obtain consent from the candidate prior to use and to explain to the candidate how the AI works and what general types of characteristics it uses to evaluate applicants.   Maryland adopted still another approach in 2020, and it prohibits employers from using facial recognition technology during job interviews without the applicant’s consent.

Further Considerations

Details of what is required to comply with the New York City bias audit have yet to be determined, including whether a vendor’s confirmation of such an assessment is sufficient for the product’s use in any setting, or whether an independent audit will be required for each employer.  In either case, it is left to vendors and employers to absorb the cost of compliance.

In addition, for those that request an alternative selection process, the law does not address what type of accommodation is required or under what conditions, and it remains unclear whether employers must grant such requests.

Employers should continue to monitor for any additional guidance New York City publishes and review and revise their policies and practices to reflect the notices and disclosures required of the law.

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