Why it matters: As summer came to a close, several state legislatures amped up their efforts to pass new employment-related legislation. Massachusetts approved a law providing leave for victims of domestic violence, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey signed a “ban the box” bill addressing the use of background checks. As discussed, California notably enacted paid sick leave but also passed a new law allowing employees a longer time period for recovery of liquidated damages when pursuing minimum wage claims. Employers in the relevant states should familiarize themselves with the new laws and their new responsibilities.

Detailed Discussion

Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, employers must now provide up to 15 days of leave in a 12-month period for employees who are victims of “abusive behavior.” Effective upon Gov. Deval Patrick’s August 8 signature, the law covers employers with at least 50 employees and includes a private right of action with mandatory triple damages.

Employees and their family members are covered by the statute, which defines “abusive behavior” to include domestic violence, criminal stalking, or sexual assault. Leave may be taken for medical attention, to obtain counseling, to take action within the court system (to appear in court, meet with a district attorney, or attend child custody proceedings, for example), or “to otherwise address issues directly related to abusive behavior.”

The law allows employers to determine whether the leave is paid or unpaid, and employees can be required to exhaust available sick, personal, and vacation time. Absent a threat of imminent danger, employees must provide appropriate advance notice of the need for leave.

In addition to an anti-retaliation provision, the law provides for a private right of action for employees, as well as enforcement power for the state’s Attorney General. Any employee who prevails on a claim is entitled to mandatory triple damages and attorneys’ fees.

New Jersey. Just a few states away, the New Jersey Legislature responded to the current controversy surrounding criminal background checks by passing the Opportunity to Compete Act, a bill that limits an employer’s ability to inquire about an applicant’s criminal background.

Set to take effect March 1, 2015, the new law applies to employers with at least 15 employees over 20 calendar weeks. Covered employers are prohibited from requiring applicants to complete any employment application making inquiries about the applicant’s criminal record as well as making any oral or written inquiries about a criminal record during the “initial employment application process.”

As defined by the law, the “initial employment application process” lasts from an applicant’s first inquiry about a possible job until a first interview has been completed. Job advertisements or solicitations must also conform to the Act and refrain from stating that the employer will not consider an applicant who has been arrested or convicted of stated offenses.

New applicants as well as current employees are covered by the law. Employers are permitted to require applicants to complete an application with questions about a criminal record after the initial employment application process has concluded, however. And if an applicant voluntarily discloses information about criminal history prior to the completion of the first interview, the employer is permitted to follow up with a request for details.

Fines for violations of the law range from $1,000 for a first-time offense to $5,000 for a second and $10,000 for each subsequent violation.

California. California becoming the second state in the nation to mandate paid sick leave overshadowed another relevant piece of legislation for employers in the state – an update to the labor law providing more time to employees to seek liquidated damages against employers in suits alleging the failure to pay minimum wage.

Pursuant to the changes instituted by the Recovery of Wages: Liquidated Damages Act, employees may now recover liquidated damages in an amount equal to recovery for minimum wage violations of Sections 98, 1193.6, 1194, or 1197.1 of the state’s labor law.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law on August 19 to deter employers from engaging in labor code violations, according to the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina). The measure does allow an employer to dodge the liquidated damages if it can demonstrate that it acted in good faith and had reasonable grounds for believing its conduct was not a violation of the minimum wage requirements.

To read An Act Relative to Domestic Violence, click here.

To read the Opportunity to Compete Act, click here.

To read the Recovery of Wages: Liquidated Damages Act, click here.