A new measure Acting Gov. Sheila Oliver signed into law Tuesday would boost the penalties for employers that illegally withheld pay from workers, and could include jail time, fines or revoking an employer’s business license.
“Today we want to send a message to employers, bad employers, that in New Jersey we are not going to tolerate the exploitation of any workers,” Oliver said at the bill-signing ceremony in Elizabeth.
Assembly Bill 2903 would increase fines to between $500 and $1,000 and instill prison sentences between 10 and 90 days for a first offense. Fines would climb to anywhere between $1,000 and $2,000 for a second offense, and imprisonment of up to 100 days. Habitual offenders could see up to five years in prison and fines upward of $15,000.
To force the hands of employers found guilty of wage theft, the state labor commissioner could revoke the employer’s license – effectively shutting down the business – until correct wages are paid.
“Every individual employed in New Jersey is entitled to the legal wages their employer agreed to pay them, including overtime,” bill sponsor Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-6th District, said in a statement.
For too long we’ve remained silent because we know we need that job. This law will make you not have to be silent anymore.
Acting Gov. Sheila Oliver
Employees can seek recovery of up to six years of stolen wages, or up to 200 percent of their stolen wages – capped at $50,000 – if the business owners are found to have retaliated against their workers for reporting the thefts. Proponents of the anti-retaliatory measures argue they are necessary to ward off employers from forcing their workers to keep quiet about wage theft.
“For too long we’ve remained silent because we know we need that job. This law will make you not have to be silent anymore,” Oliver said.
But the measure has drawn out the opposition of business advocates and Republican lawmakers, worried that “innocent” business owners could wind up with steep penalties for paperwork mistakes.
“Navigating the complexities of wage and hour laws is often a challenge for employers, whether new or experienced,” New Jersey Business and Industry Association Vice President of Government Affairs Mike Wallace said in a statement. “As a result of this law, employers acting in good faith will now be threatened with excessive civil and criminal penalties for unintended mistakes.”
To alleviate those fears, lawmakers added an amnesty period of 30 days, beginning when employers find out about the pay violation, wherein businesses who made errors in “good faith” can pay the owed wages to workers without incurring any penalty.
“I wanted to put in the clause of ‘honest mistakes’, because honest mistakes happen and I didn’t want to close any businesses or individuals who may not know what the law is,” bill sponsor Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-20th District, said in a late-June Assembly session.
“But you know that businesses should know what the hourly wages are and what they should be paying their employees,” Quijano added. “If you have an honest mistake then you have 30 days to correct it and you would only have to pay the employee what’s owed to them.”