New York Employment Attorneys Blog

Lucie Riviere

On July 8, 2015, in a post titled “Second Circuit Articulates New Test to Determine Whether Employers Need to Pay Their Interns,” The Harman Firm, LLP reported on the Second Circuit’s July 2, 2015 decision in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., which established a new test to determine whether employers must pay their interns. On January 25, 2016, the Second Circuit amended that decision upon Plaintiffs’ petition for rehearing en banc. This new decision includes few but significant changes.

From September 2009 to August 2010, Plaintiffs Eric Glatt, Alexander Footman, and Eden Antalik worked for Defendants Fox Searchlight and Fox Entertainment Group, Inc. as unpaid interns. They bring claims against Defendants for failing to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law by refusing to pay them the minimum wage and overtime pay. On February 15, 2013, Plaintiffs moved for summary judgment and class certification, among other things. On June 11, 2013, the district court rejected the “primary beneficiary” test, which focuses on what the intern receives in exchange for his work as compared with the benefit received by the employer, and instead followed the Department of Labor’s approach to determine whether unpaid interns in the for-profit private sector need to be compensated, granting Plaintiffs’ motion in part. Defendants appealed on the basis that the district court should have applied the “primary beneficiary” test. The Second Circuit agreed and vacated the district court’s decision, holding that the analysis of whether an intern is an employee and, therefore, covered by the FSLA, turns on “whether the intern or the employer is the primary beneficiary of the relationship.” To aid the analysis, the Second Circuit provided a list of “non-exhaustive factors.”

On August 14, 2015, Plaintiffs filed a petition for rehearing en banc, which requests that the Second Circuit hear the case before a panel of all active judges. Although en banc hearings ordinarily are not ordered, a case may be reheard en banc where the proceedings involves a request of exceptional importance. On January 25, 2015, the Second Circuit en banc introduced important changes to its original decision:

  1. The “primary beneficiary” question should not “be analyzed in the same manner as the standard employer-employee relationship because the intern enters into the relationship with the expectation of receiving educational or vocational benefits that are not necessarily expected with all forms of employment (though such benefits may be a product of experience on the job).”
  2. The intern inquiry is context specific and focus on programs rather than on “the experience of a specific intern.”
  3. This decision does not apply to training programs part of a job.
  4. The whole internship program may be considered regarding the suitability of a case for class of collective treatment.

This new decision is more favorable to Plaintiffs, giving them a new hope of receiving class status in the forthcoming district court decision.

If your employer does not pay you overtime or if you are not being compensated for your work, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

Owen H. Laird

On January 29, 2016, President Obama proposed a new federal rule aimed at reducing the gender pay gap. Prior to this rule, the EEOC required companies with more than 100 employees to provide the EEOC with annual data regarding their employees’ gender, age, and job classifications. The new rule modifies the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) reporting requirements for companies with over 100 employees by expanding these companies’ annual disclosure requirement to include salary data.

The gender pay gap ­– the disparity in wages between men and women who perform the same job, and, apart from their gender, are essentially similar – has been a problem in the American workplace for decades. Even after the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 – which requires employers to pay men and women who perform the same job equally – and the numerous steps taken by federal, state, and local governments, women still generally earn less then men for performing the same job. That gap is even more pronounced for minority women.

Proponents of the new rule believe it will address the gender pay gap in two ways. First, it will enable the EEOC and DOL to identify companies where women are paid less than men for the same work, allowing the EEOC to better organize and prosecute enforcement actions against these companies. The EEOC has authority to bring enforcement actions against companies who violate the Equal Pay Act. By collecting this salary information in addition to gender and age information, the EEOC and DOL will be able to review the data to identify companies with an apparent wage gap, and commence an investigation or enforcement action. Second, the EEOC hopes that simply by requiring companies to collect and assemble this data, the companies themselves will correct any identified wage disparities. Often, the existence of a wage gap at a given company is not the result of a deliberate policy to pay women less, but comes about as the amalgamation of dozens of factors spread across a body of individual personnel decisions. This is not to say that an “unintentional” wage gap is any less problematic than deliberate discrimination, but the hope is that by making executives aware of wage gaps in their own organizations, the companies will proactively address them without EEOC or DOL intervention.

Although a Republican-controlled Congress has generally rebuffed the Obama administration’s efforts to pass new anti-discrimination legislation, President Obama has taken a number of steps to address the pay gap between men and women. His administration issued an executive order in 2014 that required federal contractors to provide information regarding their employees’ gender and wages earned.

Despite these efforts, gender pay disparities continue to exist. If you believe that you are being discriminated against because of your gender, contact The Harman Firm LLP.

by Yarelyn Mena and Walker G. Harman, Jr.

On January 26, 2016, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the Northern District of Illinois decision to grant summary judgment for the defendant, Sedgwick Claims Management Services, Inc. (“Sedgwick”), in a race-discrimination lawsuit filed by Ratna Bagwe, a former Sedgwick employee. This case illustrates how courts in other districts can arrive at very different conclusions than a New York court might arrive at given New York’s case law and differing legal standards. However, this case does adequately illustrate the difficulties that a Plaintiff will encounter if they wait too long to complain. In this case, the Court found that a year was too long.

Ms. Bagwe began her employment with Sedgwick in March 2001 at its Chicago location. For several years, she claimed to have performed her duties satisfactorily, as evidenced by several pay raises and promotions. In late 2007, Ms. Bagwe’s direct supervisor, Delaine Simmons, allegedly attempted to prevent Sedgwick’s managing director, Tammy LeClaire, from promoting Ms. Bagwe. Ms. Simmons allegedly believed that Ms. Bagwe demonstrated poor leadership skills. Against Ms. Simmons’s wishes, Ms. LeClaire promoted Ms. Bagwe.

In June 2008, Ms. Bagwe went on a business trip with Ms. LeClaire and another Sedgwick employee, Anne Coyle. During the trip, Ms. LeClaire discussed her divorce and allegedly urged Ms. Bagwe to leave her “old Indian husband” and go for a “white man because white men are more fun.” Ms. Bagwe alleged that Ms. Coyne made similar remarks. Ms. Bagwe did not complain to management about the incident.

In January 2009, Ms. Bagwe had a verbal altercation with Ms. Coyne. One of Sedgwick’s account executives, Charles French, overheard the argument and expressed concerns about Ms. Bagwe’s leadership skills to his manager, Angela Popaioannou. On February 10, 2009, Ms. Bagwe attended a meeting with Mr. French to discuss the altercation. At that meeting, Ms. Bagwe disclosed for the first time Ms. Coyne’s and Ms. LeClaire’s allegedly anti-Indian comments. After the meeting, Mr. French sent a memorandum to management detailing his belief that Ms. Bagwe was an ineffective leader, citing her conflicts with co-workers, questioning decisions that she previously approved, and her team’s failure to share reports within the company. As a result, in March 2009, Ms. Bagwe was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”). In response to Ms. Bagwe’s complaints of the alleged anti-Indian comments, Mr. French dismissed them, stating, “If you overheard comments being made by another colleague about someone else, it was your role and responsibility to address the issue at that time and not a year later.”

In April 2009, Ms. Bagwe challenged the PIP, sending a complaint to management in which she stated that she was enduring “discrimination, harassment, bullying, and [a] hostile work environment.” She accused Sedgwick of refusing her additional pay raises equal to other employees based on her race. Sedgwick conducted an investigation, and in June 15, 2009, issued a report that found that Ms. Bagwe’s compensation was more than fair and that several co-workers found her to be abrasive and non-approachable.

On August 13, 2009, Sedgwick’s management met and unanimously decided to terminate Ms. Bagwe. After the meeting, Ms. Bagwe claimed that Ms. Papaioannou mumbled “Indian bitch” to her. In February 2010, a white male was hired to replace Ms. Bagwe. The replacement had management experience, which Ms. Bagwe did not, and started at a higher salary, which was justified by Ms. LeClaire based on “his level of experience and years of management.”

The Illinois district court found that the comment made about Ms. Bagwe’s “old Indian husband” was made outside of the workplace and unrelated to employment. Additionally, the “Indian bitch” comment allegedly made the day of Ms. Bagwe’s termination was insufficient and too isolated an incident to sustain her claim of race discrimination. New York Courts would likely apply a different standard, arriving at the opposite conclusion. Comments outside the workplace can be actionable in New York and one comment can be enough to create a claim for hostile work environment. Regarding Ms. Bagwe’s unequal pay claim, the Illinois court found that Sedgwick had not discriminated against her because it consistently promoted her above the median rate and conducted an investigation that yielded non-discriminatory results.

Notwithstanding the districts’ differing case law, this case illustrates the unfortunate difficulties faced by plaintiffs who bring discrimination claims who waited a year before complaining of discriminatory conduct. It is important for employees to raise complaints of discrimination immediately, not only to prevent the issue from escalating, but also to create a record of harassment if the complaints are ignored.

If you have felt discriminated against at work, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

Lucie Riviere

On December 24, 2015, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) held that Whole Foods Market, Inc.’s policy of prohibiting employees from audio and video recording in the workplace violates the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).

A Chicago-based union and the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (“WOCC”) challenged two rules found in Whole Foods’ General Information Guide (“GIG”). These rules prohibit employees from making any recording at work including conversations between employees, phone calls, images or company meetings unless prior approval is received from management. According to the GIG, the purpose of the rules is to “encourage open communication, free exchange of ideas, spontaneous and honest dialogue and an atmosphere of trust” and “eliminate a chilling effect on the expression of views that may exist.”

The NLRB found that the rules violate Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, which prohibits employers from making rules that would unreasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their rights protected by Section 7 of the NLRA. Section 7 protects the “right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and […] the right to refrain from any or all of such activities.” Such protected conduct may include, for example, recording images of picketing, documenting unsafe workplace equipment or hazardous working conditions, or recording evidence to preserve it for later use in administrative or judicial forums in employment-related actions. The Board stated in its opinion that “the rules at issue here unqualifiedly prohibit all workplace recording. Although the dissent claims that employees would reasonably interpret the rules to protect, not prohibit, Section 7 activity, the rules themselves do not differentiate between recordings protected by Section 7 and those that are unprotected.” The board added, “[The fact] that the rules contain language setting forth an intention to promote open communication and dialogue does not cure the rule of its overbreadth.” The Board also rejected Whole Foods’ argument that employees could still exercise their right during nonworking time, stating that the distinction between working time and nonworking time was not clear in the policy. In dicta, the NLRB indicated that rules restricting workplace recordings may satisfy Section 8 if they clearly allow recording activities that are protected by Section 7. For example, a rule prohibiting only the recordings of meetings in which trade secrets are discussed would likely be valid.

Additionally, several states have laws limiting what an individual can record: California and Massachusetts, for example, require the consent of all parties in order for a conversation to be recorded legally; New York only requires the consent of one party to the conversation. These State laws supersede any company policy.

If you have any questions or concerns about your right to record in the workplace or any other employment rights, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

Yarelyn Mena

On December 22, 2015, the California Northern District Court denied Defendant Recology San Francisco’s (“Recology”) motion for summary judgment against its former employee, Daryle Washington, who alleged that Recology discriminated against him based on his race.

On December 10, 2013, Mr. Washington, a material handler for Recology, saw his white co-worker, Jon Peralta, take a noose from the sorting line and place it on the backpack of another black employee, Greg Foster, as if to put it around someone’s neck. Mr. Washington immediately complained of the incident to his superior, Joseph Damele. The following day, Mr. Peralta was suspended without pay pending an investigation, which concluded that his conduct warranted a five-day suspension. Mr. Damele informed all material handlers on Mr. Peralta’s shift of the suspension, emphasizing the company’s “zero tolerance for harassment.”

After Mr. Peralta’s suspension, he was placed next to Mr. Washington on the sorting line. Mr. Washington requested to be moved to another location due to extreme discomfort working with Peralta, but the request was denied. Mr. Washington claimed that he began to have trouble falling asleep and felt depressed due to working next to Mr. Peralta each day.

On January 3, 2014, a co-worker told Mr. Washington that Mr. Peralta removed a copy of “Jet,” one of the oldest African-American magazines in publication, from the sorting line and threw it at an African-American employee. Shortly after the incident was reported, Mr. Peralta was once again suspended without pay. After these incidents, Mr. Washington filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging race discrimination. On January 23, 2014, after a meeting between Recology’s management, union representatives, and Mr. Peralta, the parties agreed that Mr. Peralta would receive an eleven-day suspension, issue a public apology to his co-workers, and attend sensitivity training through Recology’s employee-assistance program. Also that January, Mr. Washington suffered an off-the-job injury, taking leave from March 2014 until July 2014. Upon his return, Recology finally granted his request to not work with Mr. Peralta.

In November 2014, after receiving a right to sue letter from the EEOC, Mr. Washington commenced a lawsuit alleging race-based harassment in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).

The analysis under FEHA is identical to that under Title VII with respect to an employer’s liability in hostile work environment claims. An employer is liable for fostering a hostile work environment if the employee can show she was subjected to a harassing verbal or physical conduct, the conduct was unwelcome, and the conduct was severe and/or pervasive enough so as to alter the conditions of the employee’s work environment. The environment must also be found both objectively and subjectively offensive, which is determined by whether a reasonable person would find the environment hostile.

Mr. Washington listed three incidents of unwelcome conduct: Mr. Peralta’s use of the noose, Recology’s refusal to move Mr. Peralta after Mr. Washington’s complaint, and Mr. Peralta’s throwing of “Jet” magazine. In deciding whether the noose incident, which was not expressly directed at Mr. Washington, constituted as unwelcome conduct, the court wrote, “The noose is one of the most vile symbols in American history, and it recalls atrocious acts of violence committed against African Americans. The severity of the hostility inherent in a display of a noose cannot be overstated.” As such, the court decided that the incident, although not expressly directed at Mr. Washington, was sufficiently severe to survive Recology’s motion for summary judgment. The court reasoned that the jury may find that Mr. Peralta’s use of the noose on a specific person could communicate a threat of violence to other African Americans at the workplace and thus, “could have unreasonably interfered with a reasonable African American man’s performance.”

If you have felt discriminated against at work, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

Owen H. Laird, Esq.

In 2014, New York State passed the Compassionate Care Act (“CCA”), which legalized marijuana for individuals suffering from certain serious illnesses. As of today, medical marijuana dispensaries are open in New York State, which joins roughly two dozen states where individuals can purchase medical marijuana. Individuals can now be certified as medical marijuana patients by certain registered physicians. Although marijuana may alleviate patients’ symptoms, it can still have intoxicating and impairing effects. Even marijuana advocates would agree that there are at least some jobs that should not be done by people under the influence of marijuana, for example, the operation of heavy machinery or passenger vehicles.

The advent of medical marijuana in New York raises the question of whether employers can still require a drug-free workplace and discipline employees with a valid prescription for medical marijuana for testing positive. Marijuana is illegal under federal law, and this conflict between state and federal law leads to significant uncertainty, particularly with respect to employment law.

Many employers require that their employees take one-time, periodic, or random drug tests, and testing positive for marijuana can lead to discipline, up to and including termination. However, now that medical marijuana is legal in New York, there are legitimate and legal reasons for an employee to use marijuana and, as a result, fail a drug test. On the one hand, the CCA states that a certified medical marijuana patient is disabled as defined by New York State Human Rights Law. The CCA also prohibits employers from taking adverse actions against employees “solely for the certified use” of medical marijuana. Thus, medical marijuana users have some legal protection. On the other hand, employees do not have an unfettered right to use medical marijuana at work, or work under its effects. The CCA specifically states that its anti-discrimination provisions “shall not bar the enforcement of a policy prohibiting an employee from performing his or her employment duties while impaired by a controlled substance” or “require any person or entity to do any act that would put the person or entity in violation of federal law or cause it to lose a federal contract or funding.” However, determining whether any employee is presently under the influence of marijuana is not so simple; many drug tests do not determine if an individual is presently impaired, but only whether the individual had used marijuana in the recent past.

As New York’s medical marijuana program is only one day old, the state of the law and its practical effects are unclear.   The CCA suggests that employers still have the right to implement policies that require employees not work under the influence of marijuana, but, conversely, cannot discriminate against employees for using medical marijuana. Further, most employees likely are unaware of whether their use of medical marijuana will cause its employer to violate federal law or lose a federal contract.

New Jersey is one of the states that has already legalized medical marijuana. That state may offer a glimpse into what the future holds for New York (although New Jersey’s statute differs from New York’s insofar as New Jersey’s statute does not contain similar anti-discrimination language.) In New Jersey, lawsuits are pending which address whether an employer can terminate a medical marijuana patient for testing positive. It is very likely that, before long, a New York employer will terminate an employee who is also a certified medical marijuana patient, for using marijuana, and the courts will decide how the law will work in practice. Similar suits in other states have favored the employer, limiting the employee’s ability to use medical marijuana.

If you believe you have been discriminated against for using medical marijuana, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

Lucie Rivière and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq. 


 

Four taxi drivers are suing Uber Technologies, Inc. (“Uber”), the popular transportation start-up, in a $5 million class-action lawsuit for allegedly violating St. Louis licensing regulations.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission (“MTC”), which regulates taxicabs, their drivers, and taxicab companies operating in St. Louis, allowed Uber to conduct business in St. Louis as long as Uber drivers followed the same rules as all other taxi drivers, which include obtaining a specific chauffeur’s license and being fingerprinted, which is required by the MTC’s Vehicle For Hire Code (“Taxi Code”). On November 12, 2015, taxi drivers compliant with the Taxi Code filed a lawsuit against Uber after the company launched its service using drivers not compliant with the Taxi Code; i.e., drivers who had not obtained a chauffeur license or were not fingerprinted. Plaintiffs claim that they have seen a 30% to 40% drop in revenue due to Uber’s illegal operation. According to Gary Growe, Esq, who represents the taxi drivers, the purpose of the suit is “to recognize that Uber is operating illegally and as a result of that, the existing taxi drivers are being harmed.” The MTC also filed a suit against Uber seeking a restraining order barring Uber from operating in St. Louis, arguing that the drivers’ failure to be fingerprinted was a danger to the public.

In another chapter in Uber’s legal battle, California recently became the latest state to deliver a decision on the issue of Uber’s practice of classifying its drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees. On September 10, 2015, officials at California’s Employment Development Department (“EDD”) determined that an ex-Uber driver should have been classified as an employee, not an independent contractor. In June 2015, the California Labor Commission, which investigates wage claims, decided that an ex-Uber driver was entitled to unpaid wages. These decisions, however, only apply to the individuals involved. On August 16, 2013, three Uber drivers sued Uber in Northern District of California alleging that Uber unlawfully withheld driver’s gratuities and failed to reimburse them for expenses due to Uber’s misclassification of their employment status. For more information about this lawsuit, visit this link. On December 9, 2015, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion to add a second class of individuals to the class action, which now covers more than 160,000 California drivers.

It is important to note that Uber also has had its victories in misclassification proceedings; the company says that labor and employment boards in Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Indiana, Texas, New York and Illinois, issued decisions stating that drivers are independent contractors and not employees.

If you have any questions or concerns about your employment rights, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

Edgar Rivera, Esq.

In a complaint filed in the Southern District of New York on December 21, 2015, Debra Martin, a former employee of Middletown Community Health Center Inc. (“MCHC”), alleged that MCHC unlawfully terminated her employment due to her reporting to her superiors that MCHC had misused of federal funds and over billed Medicare and Medicaid.

MCHC, a federally qualified non-profit health center, provides community health care services in several locations in New York and Pennsylvania. Ms. Martin, who was charged with reviewing MCHC’s finances, claims that MCHC misused funds it received from the Health Resources and Services Administration and billed Medicare and Medicaid for services that it had not provided. She alleges that MCHC’s director, Theresa Butler, knew, approved, and often directed these practices.

Ms. Martin alleges that between November 2014 and July 2015, she reported several instances of purportedly illegal activity to MCHC’s president of the board of directors, Joe Palughi. In May 2015, Ms. Martin told Mr. Palughi that Ms. Butler was drawing down sums from a Health Resources and Services Administration grant in amounts larger than permitted by regulation and that continuing to do would exhaust those funds four months before they were supposed to. On multiple occasions, Ms. Martin reported to Mr. Palughi that MCHC was not paying bills required to maintain medical supplies necessary for the proper operation of the health care center. She also advised him that MCHC was deducting amounts equal to health insurance premiums from employees’ payroll checks without paying such premiums to its employees and then co-mingling those deductions with general operating funds. Ms. Martin also expressed concerns to Mr. Palughi that if Ms. Butler learned that she had reported these activities to Mr. Palughi, she would be fired. On August 24, 2015, MCHC terminated Ms. Martin, alleging that she had breached confidentiality without further explanation. In the aftermath of her termination, Mr. Palughi refused to speak to Ms. Martin.

Ms. Martin brings claims pursuant to False Claims Act (the “Act”), which protects employees from retaliation based on efforts to stop violations under the Act, which includes defrauding governmental programs. The Act is the federal government’s primary litigation tool in combating fraud. Passed during the Civil War in response to army contractors knowingly selling damaged and defective equipment to the Union Army, the Act allows individuals who are not affiliated with the government to take on the role of a “private attorney general” by filing actions on behalf of the government against private entities that have defrauded the federal government. Between 1987 and 2013, the government recovered approximately $38.9 billion under the Act, and since the Obama Administration’s creation of the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (“HEAT”) in 2009 to 2013, the government has recovered approximately $2 billion each year in health care fraud alone. In 2015, HEAT coordinated the largest-ever national health care fraud takedown involving $712 million in fraudulent billing.

If you feel you have been retaliated against for raising issues of fraud against the federal government, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

Jennifer Melendez

During the holiday season, company holiday parties are a fun way to promote healthy work relationships. However, as alcohol and religious themes often are present, holiday parties may cause many employers and employees anxiety and uncertainty with respect to safety, professionalism and etiquette. Employers and employees should know how to address these issues to avoid legal problems. Below are a few tips to safely and comfortably enjoy your holiday work parties.

Alcohol can increase the likelihood of drunk driving, sexual harassment or a workplace injury. One way employers can try to avoid these risks at company gatherings is to distribute “drink tickets” restricting the number of drinks permitted to each employee. Employers also may restrict the types of alcohol available at the party – for example by only providing beer and wine – to curtail excess inebriation. When choosing a venue, employers should consider access to public transportation or arrange for private transportation to avoid drinking and driving. Finally, all employees consuming alcohol must always be over 21 years old.

Sometimes an employee will choose to not attend the holiday gathering because of personal or religious reasons; employers cannot retaliate against or ostracize employees that do not attend. Additionally, employees may be sensitive to overly religious party themes; therefore, employers must be mindful to keep all workplace gatherings secular and remember their obligation to provide religious accommodation to their employees.

Although parties are a way to socialize and wind down, maintaining professionalism is still important. Whether the party is formal or informal, employee dress and theme party dress codes can raise the potential for sexual harassment and other forms of unlawful or inappropriate behavior. Employers should remind employees that company policies and protocols always apply. One way employers can keep a disciplined and professional atmosphere is to encourage employees to invite their spouses and children.

Employers and employees should always remember to stay professional at workplace gatherings. Troubles can arise when employees do not understand what their behavioral expectations are, don’t let a holiday party negatively impact company morale for the other 364 days of the year.

Contact The Harman Firm, LLP is you believe your rights were violated at a work holiday party.

Owen H. Laird, Esq.

As people across the country gather with friends and family to celebrate the holidays and usher 2015 to a close, they’re probably not discussing the numerous legal and statutory changes that take place as the calendar turns from December to January. Over this past year, federal, state and local governments passed a variety of new laws, and amended many more. Several of these changes go into effect with the new year.

On January 1, 2016, New York City’s Commuter Benefits Law goes into effect. This new law requires that most private employers with more than twenty full-time, non-union employees offer their full-time employees the opportunity to use pre-tax income to purchase qualified transportation fringe benefits. In practice, this means that employees of covered employers can elect to pay for up to $255 per month of commuter costs – such as fares on the MTA, LIRR, PATH, NJ Transit, as well as some ferries, commuter vans, and busses – pre-tax, meaning that the employee can avoid paying taxes on these expenses. The Commuter Benefits Law caps these expenses at $255 per month, and only covers expenses related to public transportation, not those related to driving or carpooling. While this new law is unlikely to drastically change your employment, it is a convenient new benefit that employers and employees need to understand.

On January 19, 2016, a series of amendments to New York Labor Law will take effect. The modifications significantly change New York employment law; employees and employers alike must adjust to these developments in the new year. The changes include:

  • expanding sexual harassment protections to workers at companies with less than four employees;
  • adding attorneys’ fees to damages employees can recover in sex discrimination lawsuits;
  • Including “familial status” as a protected class under the New York State Human Rights Law;
  • Narrowing the exceptions to New York’s Equal Pay law;
  • Protecting worker’s rights to discuss their wages; and
  • Expanding protections for pregnant workers under New York State law.

These statutory amendments will significantly expand workers’ rights and protections in New York in the coming year.

In addition to statutory changes, many annual minimum wage hikes take place as the new year begins. In New York, the minimum wage will increase from $8.75 an hour to $9.00 an hour in the new year. This is not the only wage hike that will take place: in a major change, the minimum wage for tipped workers, including those in the restaurant and hospitality industries, will increase from $5.00 an hour to $7.50 an hour. The tipped minimum wage is what employers must pay tipped employees in addition to whatever tips they receive; as this rate had remained flat since 2011, the raise is a welcome relief to servers and workers across the state.

Likewise, in response to widespread protests, New York State implemented new fast food minimum wage rules which begin to go into effect in 2016. As of the new year, fast food workers must be paid at least $9.75 an hour throughout New York State, and $10.50 an hour in New York City. These wage increases will help thousands of workers who struggle to make ends meet by working one or more low-paying jobs in the fast food industry.

Many important changes to workplace rights will take place in the coming weeks, so while you reflect on 2015, make sure to consider the progress that was made and the new benefits to be enjoyed in 2016. Contact The Harman Firm, LLP, if you believe your employer has violated your rights.