New Jersey Takes the Lead in Equal Pay Act Legislation

by Genova Burns LLC
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Following up on his January 16, 2018 Executive Order promoting equal pay for equal work, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a historic and sweeping equal pay law on April 24, 2018. The “Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act” was named after former Republican Senator Diane B. Allen, herself a victim of bias, who was part of the original negotiations surrounding the bill when it was first proposed under former Governor Chris Christie. The new Equal Pay Act applies to all employers in New Jersey regardless of size and is scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2018. The new law combats not only gender pay discrimination but also wage discrimination against those protected by the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD).

Coverage

The Equal Pay Act amends the NJLAD and now makes it illegal for an employer to pay any employees who are members of a protected class recognized under the NJLAD at a lower compensation than other employees who are not members of a protected class, for “substantially similar work,” unless a pay differential is justified by legitimate business necessity. Under the NJLAD, protected classes include race, creed, sex, color, national origin, ancestry, nationality, disability, age, pregnancy or breastfeeding, marital, civil union or domestic partnership status, affectional or sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, military status, and genetic information or atypical hereditary cellular or blood traits. “Substantially similar work” is determined by a combination of the “skill, effort and responsibility” required for that position and is not limited to employees who work within a specific geographic area or region.

Moreover, although the legislation carves out an exception for differential pay based on certain factors like merit, seniority, and education, this exception is only so long as these factors do not perpetuate a sex-based differential in compensation. For example, if one employee has a different title than another employee or even works in a different department, but both employees perform the same types of tasks with similar levels of responsibility, both employees should be paid the same.

An employer may pay a different rate of compensation only if the employer demonstrates that the differential is made pursuant to a seniority system, a merit system, or the employer demonstrates:

  • The differential is based on one or more legitimate, bona fide factors other than the characteristics of members of the protected class (like training, education, experience, or the quantity or quality of production);
  • The factors are not based on, and do not perpetuate, a differential in compensation based on sex or any other characteristic protected under the NJLAD;
  • Each of the factors must be applied reasonably;
  • One or more factors account for the entire wage differential; and
  • The factors are job-related with respect to the position in question and based on a legitimate business necessity.

Prohibitions

The new law also makes it easier for employees to win pay-discrimination cases since all they would need to show is that they were paid unequally for “substantially similar” work, rather than the previous standard of “substantially equal” work. Employers are also not permitted to reduce the rate of compensation of any employee in order to achieve compliance.

The new law also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who (1) oppose any practices or acts forbidden under the Act; (2) seek legal advice regarding rights under the Act; (3) share relevant information with legal counsel or a governmental entity; or (4) file a complaint, testifies or assists in any proceeding.  The Act also forbids coercion, intimidation, threats or interference with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of that person having aided or encouraged any other person in the exercise or enjoyment of, any right granted or protected by the Act.

Statute of Limitations

In addition to any other relief authorized by the NJLAD, liability under the new law shall accrue, and an aggrieved person may obtain relief for back pay, for up to 6 years, so long as the violations continue within the 6-year period. The law also makes it unlawful to require employees or prospective employees to consent to a shortened statute of limitations or to waive any of the protections afforded under the NJLAD.

Available Damages

In addition to the damages permitted under the NJLAD, the new law allows victims of discrimination to recover triple damages should a jury, or the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, determine that the employer is guilty of an unlawful employment practice as defined by the law.

Reporting Obligations

To ensure companies doing business with the state comply, companies that win contracts from public agencies are required to submit reports to the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development. These reports would need to include the gender and race of employees in every job title or pay band, and the total compensation for each category of employees.

Bottom Line

Employers should carefully analyze their existing pay practices to ensure compliance. Prior to July 1, 2018, employers must review the current job descriptions, employee handbooks and policies to determine which employees perform “substantially similar work” in order to ensure they are being compensated at the same rate. If, after doing this review, there is a pay differential, the employer must be able to show that the difference is not based on sex or any other characteristic of members of a protected class. Existing handbooks and policies must also be revised to prohibit pay discrimination for substantially similar work, and prohibit retaliation against employees who request, discuss or disclose compensation or other job-related information covered by the law. Human resources and benefits personnel should also be trained on the new requirements and managers should also receive updated training.

Employers must also be aware that the provision for back pay damages is much more extensive than federal law, and the possibility of treble damages should a jury find that an employer is guilty of an unlawful employment practice should serve as a powerful deterrent to correct discriminatory pay differentials.  Lastly, employers who work with public entities must ensure that payroll records and other information regarding the “gender, race, job title, occupational category and rate of compensation” of every employee that is part of the project is up to date and sent to the public entity.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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