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What are my protections against retaliatory discharge at work?

Unfortunately, New Jersey is considered an "at will" work state. This means that an employer can fire a non-contract employee with or without cause and almost every situation. However, a relatively new law enacted in 2007 addresses the issue when employees are fired because they have threatened to disclose unlawful activities committed by the employer.

The Conscientious Employee Protection Act makes it unlawful for any employer to engage in the retaliatory discharge of an employee who either threatens to or discloses to a supervisor or a public entity any illegal activity or other violations of rules and regulations. A good example of a CEPA violation would be an investment banker fired for threatening to disclose to shareholders unfavorable information regarding corporate profits. Another example might be a nursing home care worker fired for disclosing to the media about improper medical care provided at his or her place of employment.

CEPA is wide-ranging in its definition of protected classes, but also has a built in requirement that often proves difficult for would-be whistleblowers. Put simply, in order to gain the protections of CEPA against retaliatory discharge, a whistleblower is required to first put the employer on written notice that he or she is aware of the illegal activity or unlawful rule-breaking.

Under CEPA the employee is also expected to allow sufficient time to pass for the employer to remedy the wrongdoing before the reporting employee goes public with the incriminating information. This written notice requirement is not required in situations where the whistleblower reasonably fears physical harm as a result of the disclosure.

If you are a New Jersey worker who has been retaliated against by your employer through termination, demotion or reassignment because of your disclosures, you may be eligible for certain damages and be reinstated at your former job at the same pay, seniority and benefits as you previously held.

Source: New Jersey Statutes-Labor and Workers' Compensation, "Section 34:19-1 Conscientious Employee Protection Act." Oct. 02, 2014

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