Update 1/23/14 – On Wednesday, January 22, 2014, Governor Christie signed  S2995 into law.  LaborSphere’s original post on the legislation appears below. 

New Jersey is on the precipice of expanding anti-discrimination protections to both pregnant women and new mothers and those recovering from childbirth.  The State Senate and now the State Assembly have passed identical measures with only one dissenting vote in either legislative body.  The expansive legislation now awaits the signature of Governor Chris Christie in order to become law. 

Amendments to New Jersey Law Against Discrimination

In order to address the perceived vulnerability of pregnant women in the workplace as well as to foster the goal of healthier pregnancies and recovery from childbirth, the legislation passed by New Jersey’s legislature expands the anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation protections of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”).  Should it pass, both pregnant women but also those who have recently given birth or have medical conditions related to pregnancy will be statutorily protected against disparate treatment and retaliation by employers, labor organizations, landlords, lending institutions as well as an array of other entities that offer public accommodations.

Further, not only does the pending legislation add “pregnancy” to the array of protected categories covered by the NJLAD.  It also specifically requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations,” such as bathroom breaks, breaks for increased water intake, periodic rest, assistance with manual labor, job restructuring, modified work schedules and temporary transfers to less strenuous or hazardous work.

The legislation implied but does not specifically state that any such requested accommodations will likely need to be based on the advice of a physician.  As such, it appears that pregnant women and those who have recently given birth cannot merely demand that an accommodation is “reasonable” and necessary absent some input from her physician.

Further, employers are not obligated to agree to any requested accommodation, even if it is supported by a physician’s recommendation, if such an accommodation would impose an “undue burden” as defined by the statute.  The proposed legislation provides specific factors to be utilized in determining whether an accommodation would impose undue hardship on the operation of an employer’s business.  These include:

overall size of the employer’ business with respect to the number of employees; number and type of facilities; size of budget; the type of the employer’s operations, including the composition and structure of the employer’s workforce; the nature and cost of the accommodation needed, taking into consideration the availability of tax credits, tax deductions and outside funding; and the extent to which the accommodation would involve waiver of an essential requirement of a job as opposed to a tangential or non-business necessity requirement.

New Protection To Employees Seeking Information About Claims

Perhaps the start of a new trend, among the proposed amendments to the NJLAD is also a provision that protects any employee against reprisals by employers for asking coworkers or former coworkers for information that is part of an investigation or in furtherance of a possible claim under the NJLAD.  Such information may include requests for data regarding pay, compensation, bonuses or benefits.  Significantly, this new protection extends beyond pregnant women and those who have recently given birth. 

Impact of Amendments

If enacted, the amendments to the NJLAD would override the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in Gerety v. Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort, 184 N.J. 391 (2005).  In that case, New Jersey’s highest court held that the NJLAD does not protect against the firing of a female worker who exceeded the leave available under state and federal as well as the defendant-employer’s policy.  Under the proposed amendments, it is likely that the accommodations requested in the Gerety case, by a plaintiff who had a difficult pregnancy with twins, would be considered reasonable and covered under the NJLAD.

More broadly, while the federal Family Medical Leave Act and New Jersey Family Leave Act each allow for a maximum of twelve weeks of pregnancy-related leave, under the proposed amendments, the amount of leave available to a woman who is pregnant or recovering from childbirth is not as clearly defined.  To the extent a women seeks an accommodation – including additional leave or a reduced work schedule – because of pregnancy and childbirth-related conditions, an employer has, at the very least, an obligation to review and consider such requests.

Should the proposed amendments to the NJLAD be passed, we recommend a review of leave policies as well as training for managers to identify requests for accommodations.  Each request for accommodation must be considered carefully and should it appear to impose an undue burden, then the statutorily defined factors must be taken into account.