As an employee in New Jersey, you have certain legal rights. However, it's up to you to make sure your employer is respecting your rights and to take the necessary legal action when you believe your rights have been violated.
Handling a Hostile Work Environment
This has a specific meaning in the law. It does not mean just that you have a difficult or unpleasant boss. A hostile work environment is a kind of employment discrimination. It is often seen in cases of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, but it can arise in others as well, like race discrimination. If you think that you are suffering from a hostile work environment, take action to protect yourself:
- Report misconduct immediately. Tell a supervisor or Human Resources and confirm it in writing or email. Having a paper trail of documented events can help build your case.
- Document everything. Document what's happening. Make your own notes. A paper notebook is fine, and so are notes made on your own computer or in a personal email account. Do not use a company-owned computer or computer system.
- Talk to a lawyer. If you fear that you will lose your job, consult with an employment lawyer immediately. A lawyer probably cannot save your job but may be able to help you get positioned for a severance payment or lawsuit.
Protecting Yourself After a Job Loss
If you've lost your job, or think you're about to, here are some things you can do to protect yourself:
- Don't sign anything. If your employer offers you a severance agreement, it will contain a waiver or release of your legal rights. Sign it, and you will agree to give up your right to sue your employer. If you have reached your 40th birthday, your employer is legally required to give you 21 days (in some instances 45) to consider the severance agreement and to advise you to consult with an attorney about it. If you do sign it, your employer must give you another seven days to revoke your acceptance. Just remember that signing and revoking can change the dynamics of any subsequent negotiation with the employer, so do not look at the right of revocation as a "free pass."
- Don't take anything that isn't yours. Generally speaking, you can print out your e-mails and similar information. Don't take confidential information or go into areas that you're not entitled to access. If your employer has issued you a laptop, it belongs to the company—not you.
- Don't yell, threaten, or break anything. Although losing a job is a difficult and emotional experience, rise above the moment. Losing your temper will do nothing but give your employer ammunition to use against you. In some cases, it can get you arrested.
Filing for Unemployment Benefits
You've lost your job. Now what? For most people, the first step is to file for unemployment insurance benefits so you can pay the bills. Key points to remember include:
- Act quickly. The sooner you apply, the sooner you can begin to collect your benefits. If your application is denied, you can always appeal.
- Determine the grounds. The grounds on which you can be denied benefits are limited. Common ones are severe "misconduct" and "voluntarily quitting" your job. These terms have precise legal meanings, but sometimes employers use them incorrectly to oppose UI benefits.
- Speak to an attorney. You can handle your unemployment hearing yourself, but an experienced employment law attorney may be able to help by representing you in a difficult case or prepare you to represent yourself. A reasonable flat fee may be available if you choose an attorney's help.
Going to the EEOC
When people think of employment law, many think of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is a federal agency charged with enforcing United States law, and going there is a necessary first step in many states. New Jersey is different, which is a good thing for employees.
New Jersey has an employment rights statute called the Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Under LAD, there's no need to make the first stop at an administrative agency like the EEOC. And the remedies under LAD are more employee-friendly than the remedies under federal law. For very good reasons, most employment cases in New Jersey are brought in state court under LAD, without an intermediate stop at an agency.
- Think state court first. While there can be good reasons to start with the EEOC or its state counterpart agency, known as the Division on Civil Rights, this may not be advisable. Unless you are certain that you want to follow this path, talk to an employment lawyer before deciding whether or not to file.
- Timing is important. If you want to file with the EEOC, or its New Jersey counterpart known as the Division on Civil Rights, or DCR, in New Jersey, you have 300 days to do so. In some states, the time is just 180 days. To preserve your rights, you must file on time. The same goes for filing a complaint in state court. In New Jersey, the usual time period is two years, but it can also be one year or six, depending upon your claim.
- Keep your options open. Even if you decide to file with the EEOC, do not rely just on the agency to help you. You may not get the result that you want. Continue to look for a lawyer.
Taking Legal Action
Choosing whether to take on your employer legally is a hard decision. Here are some tips to help you decide whether confrontation is a road that you want to take:
- Have a clear objective. Do you want a better severance agreement, damages for financial, physical, or emotional loss, to fight for a principle, or something else?
- Determine your tolerance for conflict. Litigation is not a sport, and it is not fun. For some people, the best option is to drop the dispute and move on with life. For others, taking on the fight is the right path.
- Be realistic. Most people tend to overestimate the value of their case. Web sites may help here, but the best way to get an accurate assessment of the value of your case is to speak with an employment lawyer who is experienced in your state.
If your employer has violated your rights, Steinberg Law, LLC can help. Experienced employment attorney Frank Steinberg can handle cases involving discrimination, hostile work environments, unfair termination, and more throughout New Jersey. Contact us today to schedule a free case review.