By Chantal N. Guerriero, Esq., and Ty Hyderally, Esq.
In the employment law world, it is certainly not unique for an employer to create an excuse to terminate an employee as a pretext for their true, underlying reason for the termination, especially where the true reason is discriminatory or retaliatory. Now, employers have the potential excuse of COVID-19 to terminate employees by the masses. In some cases, the damaging effects of the pandemic are indeed a legitimate reason to terminate employees, but in other cases, this excuse may very well be a mere cover for the employer’s real motivation behind the termination.
In one recent New Jersey case, a group of five ex-union members alleged that their Union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, (the “Union”), terminated them for their protected whistleblowing activity. Namely, the ex-union members demonstrated their support for, John Ballantyne, another whistleblower who had helped bring about a 2018 federal investigation of the union for its alleged fraud, corruption, and embezzlement of funds. That federal case accused the then-Carpenters Funds administrator, George Laufenberg, of embezzling $1.5 million in funds, and the Union has since then been under close scrutiny. Now, the ex-union members argue that the Union is looking to clear out any opposition to their illegal practices.
In the New Jersey case, the ex-union members also openly opposed the union’s overarching culture of racism and sexism, and thus asserted that their termination was not only done in violation of the whistleblower act (the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, “CEPA”), but was also done in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).
To support their claims, the ex-union members asserted that they were threatened, monitored, cut off from funds, spied on, and stalked in retaliation for their opposition to the Union’s illegal activities. Thereafter, in an ultimate act of retaliation, they were terminated. In response, the Union stuck to their story that the terminations were done in response to financial strain caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic. In light of the Union’s recent history fraught with corruption, as the case progresses, proving their innocent motive will undoubtedly be an uphill battle for the Union. The Union’s case also serves as a reminder for employees to scrutinize their employer’s reason for terminating them, even when the employer claims a pandemic-related hardship.
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