New Jersey has recently joined many other states across the nation in taking a serious look at state sexual harassment laws. In September of 2019, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, a part of the Attorney Generals’ office, hosted three hearings across the state. The purpose of the hearings was to get a comprehensive look at how sexual harassment manifests in New Jersey in the workplace, housing and places of public accomodation. The findings and recommendations on how to address sexual harassment at the state level were compiled into a report, published by the state Divison on Civil Rights in February of 2020. At the time of publication, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced legislative proposals based upon the recommendations within the report.
Governor Murphy promised to sign legislation which addressed shortcomings and gaps in New Jersey’s current laws regarding sexual harassment. For example, the Governor supports amending the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to include domestic workers and unpaid interns under the law’s protections. Other states, including New York, have recently taken similar measures to protect vulnerable groups who were not previously included in State anti-discrimination legislation. The Governor also supports requiring public and private employers in New Jersey to provide State developed anti-harassment training to all employees.
Another proposal is to extend the statute of limitations for filing a civil lawsuit based on sexual harassment charges. Victims in the state are currently provided two years from the time of the harassment to file a lawsuit, which many advocates have noted is too short a time. The new proposal would change the statute of limitations to three years. The Governor also proposes doubling the amount of time to file a complaint with the Division on Civil Rights from six months to a year. Both measures would allow more victims to seek some type of remedy to the harm they have experienced, often at the hands of employers or coworkers.
The Governor also supports legislation which would express that only one instance of sexual harassment is enough for a victim to file a civil complaint. This is a large step away from the “severe or pervasive” standard, created by the United States Supreme Court in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson in 1986, which so many courts in the country still follow. He also made clear that new legislation should clarify that sexual harassment does not need to include physical contact to be considered illegal.
A bill including all of the above proposals needs to pass successfully through both the New Jersey Senate and the General Assembly to reach Governor Murphy’s desk, which can be a long and arduous process. However, the strong support for the legislation shown by the Democratic Governor will likely have some sway in the Democrat-controlled New Jersey Legislature. Advocates across the State are celebrating the widespread support for the proposed changes to State law – and will be celebrating once more when the proposals very likely become law.
During this Coronavirus shutdown/slowdown, New Jersey businesses should “get ahead of the curve” by learning the current laws and scheduling anti-harassment training for their employees, especially managers. That can be done remotely and would be a good project during this “downtime.”
Rachael Newcomb is in her 2nd year at Rutgers Law School in Newark, New Jersey. We welcome her as a new contributor.