NJ Bill Proposed to Address Employer’s Actions During State of Emergency

March 28, 2014
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As successive winter storms have adversely impacted businesses across the east coast this year, employers have faced difficult decisions on whether to close their businesses due to the weather and how to compensate affected employees who missed work due to hazardous travel conditions. Frequently, employers have charged their employees with paid personal time off (if available) or with unpaid leave in such instances. This issue became more complicated when the snow day off was the result of the declaration of a “state of emergency.” When the government takes away the employee’s option of braving the weather conditions to get to work and shuts all employers down, how does that affect what employers may do? N.J. Senator Peter J. Barnes has introduced a bill to the Senate Labor Committee that provides an answer. The bill proposes that employers be prohibited from requiring employees to use any sick, vacation, personal days, or other form of leave of absence, regardless of whether paid or unpaid, during a state of emergency. A “state of emergency” is defined as a natural or man-made disaster in which a state of emergency is declared by the New Jersey Governor or by a municipal emergency management coordinator. The proposed legislation further prohibits employers from taking adverse actions against employees who are unable to attend work while New Jersey is in a state of emergency. The bill provides that an employer who violates the bill should be penalized $5000 for the first violation and $10,000 for each additional violation. Public employers employing public safety employees, such as law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical providers, are exempted from the proposed law’s requirements. Will small businesses that only have a few key employees be subject to a different set of rules during a declared state of emergency? It is not yet clear how these and other types of concerns will be addressed as the bill progresses through the legislative process. For some businesses, allowing employees to work from home computers provides an alternative. However, for those businesses that rely on employees being at the work premises, such as a restaurant or a hotel, many questions still remain. If you have any questions about the proposed bill by Senator Barnes or would like to discuss your company’s employee policies and procedures, please contact me or the Scarinci Hollenbeck Labor and Employment Law attorney with whom you work.