Hartford, Conn. (January 25, 2023) - 2022 brought new developments to Connecticut's labor and employment law. For the first time, Connecticut employees had the option of applying for paid medical leave through the state. Restrictions on certain employers' ability to discipline employees for off-duty use of cannabis also went into effect. Protections for employees who opt-out of listening to political or religious speech in the workplace were also implemented. Amendments to the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA) additionally went into effect, including redefining the number of employees to qualify as an "employer" and adding domestic violence victims as a protected class. An overview of these key updates is below.

Family & Medical Leave Act

On January 1, 2022, an expansion of the Connecticut Family & Medical Leave Act (CTFMLA) went into effect. Previously, the CTFMLA only applied to employers with at least 75 employees. Starting January 1, 2022, the Act was expanded to include all employers with at least one employee. As a result, essentially all Connecticut employers are required, within a 12-month period, to allow eligible employees up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave for certain qualifying reasons, such as the birth of a child, an employee's health condition, or caring for a family member with a serious health condition. Employees may also be entitled to an additional two weeks for incapacitation related to pregnancy within the applicable 12-month period. A person becomes eligible to take leave under the CTFMLA once they have been employed with the employer for three consecutive months.

Connecticut employees also saw automatic deductions being taken out of their paychecks for their mandated contributions to the Connecticut Paid Family & Medical Leave Act (CT PFMLA), which went into effect on January 1, 2022. The Act provides that eligible employees are entitled to paid leave benefits for up to 12 weeks, with a possible additional two weeks for incapacitation related to pregnancy. For eligible employees whose wages are less than or equal to the Connecticut minimum wage multiplied by 40, the weekly benefit rate is 95% of the employee's average weekly wage. For eligible employees whose wages exceed the Connecticut minimum wage multiplied by 40, the weekly benefit rate will be 95% of the Connecticut minimum wage multiplied by 40, plus 60% of the amount the employee's average weekly wage exceeds the Connecticut minimum wage multiplied by 40 with a cap at 60 times the Connecticut minimum wage.

Employers themselves are not required to provide paid leave benefits. Employees apply for and ultimately receive the benefits through the State's Paid Leave Authority. Employers are required to verify employment status and employee salary status. An eligible employee is defined as a full or part-time employee who has earned at least $2,325 in the highest-earning quarter of the first four of the five most recent quarters and is either currently employed in Connecticut with a covered employer or has been employed in Connecticut with a covered employer in the 12 weeks immediately before the claim was filed.

The CT PFMLA is funded by state-mandated contributions of .5% of all Connecticut employees' salary or wages. Although full 2022 numbers have not yet been released, as of mid-year, more than 16,300 Connecticut workers received benefits with over $81,150,827 in benefits paid. In sum, many Connecticut employees took advantage of this paid leave during the inaugural year of the CT PFMLA. Now that more employees are aware of the potential benefits available to them, even more employees may seek to take advantage of this paid leave in 2023.

Minimum Wage

On July 1, 2022, the minimum wage increased from $13.00 per hour to $14.00 per hour. This raise was already established in the minimum wage increase signed by Governor Lamont in 2019, though this raise did not go into effect until 2022. As part of the law, the minimum wage will further increase to $15.00 on June 1, 2023. On the January 1, 2024, the minimum wage will become indexed to the U.S. Department of Labor's calculated employment cost index.

Restrictions on Disciplining Employees for Recreational Marijuana Usage

An Act Concerning Responsible and Equitable Regulation of Adult-Use Cannabis was signed into law on June 22, 2021, essentially making recreational usage of marijuana legal, and primarily took effect July 1, 2021, but certain provisions that impact employers took effect July 1, 2022. Beginning July 1, 2022, covered employers are prohibited from disciplining employees, or denying employment to prospective employees, on the basis of off-duty recreational marijuana use, provided the employee is not impaired while on-duty, unless the employer has a written policy in place. Employers who are not "covered" do not have to be bound by the prohibition established under the Act.

An employer is not covered under the Act if it falls within an exempted category defined by the Act. An exempted employer includes an employer whose primary activity is: mining; generating, transmitting, and/or distributing utilities; construction; manufacturing; transportation or delivery; educational services; healthcare or social services; justice, public order, or safety activities; or national security/international affairs. Certain employee positions are also exempt from the requirements set forth in the Act, including: fire fighters; emergency medical technicians; police or peace officers; jobs funded by a federal grant; jobs that require a CDL license; jobs that require caring for children, medical patients, or vulnerable persons; positions with the potential to adversely impact the health or safety of employees or members of the public; or a nonprofit organization or corporation that has the primary purpose of discouraging the use of cannabis products.

Regardless of exemption status, an employer can prohibit using or possessing recreational marijuana in the workplace. However, possession of medical marijuana by a qualifying patient must be permitted. An employer can also prohibit marijuana use outside of the workplace, provided there is a policy in writing that is accessible to employees. As to prospective employees, the written policy must be made available to the prospective employee at the time an offer, or conditional offer, is made to the applicant.

If an employer is considered a covered employer, it cannot discharge or take adverse action against an employee or prospective employee solely on the basis of marijuana use, unless it has a clear written policy in place providing for such disciplinary action. Employers are still entitled to appropriately discipline employees upon reasonable suspicion that an employee is using or impaired by marijuana while performing the duties of their job.

Regardless of exemption status, all employers should strongly consider updating their written policies regarding potential discipline or adverse action that can be taken as a result of either a positive THC test. Once the policy is updated, it should be distributed to all employees.

Employee First Amendment Protections

An Act Protecting Employee Freedom of Speech and Conscience went into effect on July 1, 2022. The Act provides broader protections of employees' First Amendment rights in the workplace. Specifically, the law prohibits employers from discharging or otherwise disciplining employees if an employee refuses to attend an employer "sponsored" meeting at which the employer's opinions regarding religious or political matters are communicated. Political matters are defined to include labor organizations. Employees are also protected if they refuse to listen to such speech from an employer.

The Act does not prohibit employers from communicating information to employees that the employer is required by law to communicate, or which is necessary for employees to perform their job. The Act further does not prohibit an institution of higher education from meeting with or communicating with its employees as a part of coursework or other institutional academic programming. The Act also does not prohibit casual conversations between employees or between employees and the employer representative, provided participation is not required. Religious organizations are exempt from the requirements regarding religion-based communication.

Expansions of Definition of Employer and Added Protections for Domestic Violence Victims

The Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA) was amended with "An Act Concerning . . . Protections for Victims of Domestic Violence," which went into effect on October 1, 2022. The Act expanded the definition of "employer" from having three or more employees to one or more employees. The definition of "employee" was also broadened to specifically include elected or appointed officials of a "municipality, board, commission, counsel,s or other governmental body.

The Act further added domestic violence victims as a protected class. As a result, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees who are domestic violence victims. Employers are additionally required to provide employees with a reasonable accommodation of a "reasonable" leave of absence to: seek attention for domestic violence injuries for themselves or their children; obtain services from a domestic violence agency; obtain psychological counseling related to domestic violence for the employee or their child; take other actions to increase safety; and/or obtain legal services or participate in legal proceedings related to domestic violence. As with any other reasonable accommodation required under the CFEPA, employers are not required to provide the accommodation if it would impose an "undue hardship" on the employer.

If an employee is physically or mentally disabled as a result of a domestic violence incident, the Act establishes that the employee shall be treated as an employee with any other disability. The Act also mandates that employers shall maintain confidentiality of domestic violence victims to the extent permitted by law.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.