Earlier this year, the New York state legislature held its first hearings on sexual harassment and gender discrimination in nearly 50 years. Now Senate Bill 6577, the product of those hearings, has been signed into law. That means tighter sexual harassment laws and better protection for domestic workers, independent contractors, and workers in small businesses.
In this blog post, I will discuss Senate Bill 6577, which tightens sexual harassment laws under the New York State Human Rights Law. I will explain how the new law, together with those that went into effect in January 2019, will expand the definition of employer and protections for non-employee workers, as well as making it easier to prove sexual harassment claims against employers and abusers.
New York state legislators hadn’t taken the time to hold hearings on the state’s sexual harassment laws since 1992. But after a shift in state politics, the issue of sexual harassment and gender discrimination finally pushed its way to the fore. The legislators considered a set of anti-harassment bills designed to tighten sexual harassment laws and provide protections to previously under-served workers. The state senate heard from survivors, advocates, and legislative aides who had worked together to push for sexual harassment reform. At the end of the day, the vote was 109 to 19 in favor of the new law. Senate Majority Leader Stewart Cousins said:
“New York’s outdated sexual harassment laws have silenced survivors for too long. As lawmakers, it is our responsibility to protect survivors and work to improve the standards and culture in the workplace. . . . This legislation works to close loopholes, extend the statute of limitations, and ensure that sexual harassment policies are clear for all employees across the public and private sector. I applaud Senator Biaggi for her unrelenting advocacy on this issue.”
The new laws, some of which are already in effect and others of which will roll out in 2020, tighten the state’s Human Rights Law against discrimination and sexual harassment. They also put in place protections for some of the state’s most disadvantaged workers.
One of the biggest changes in the new law is the removal of the “severe or pervasive” standard from discrimination and retaliation cases. This means that employers won’t be able to claim that what happened “wasn’t that big a deal” as long as a reasonable person would have been offended by the behavior.
The law also removes the “Faragher-Ellerth” defense, which means skipping the internal complaint process will no longer doom a plaintiff’s claim. This is especially important in small businesses where the owner is likely close to the person committing the abuse, or may be doing it themselves.
The law also extends the period when employees can report sexual harassment at work. Complainants now have up to three years to come to grips with what has happened, gather their evidence, and make their case.
Workers in the smallest of small businesses and independent contractors often have trouble asserting their rights under established state and federal laws. Limits on the number of employees a company must have to qualify under the law and the definition of what an employee was cut many workers off from the protections available to everyone else. The new law expands protections to domestic workers, independent contractors, and the employees of small businesses, removing exceptions and expanding the definition of an “employer” or “employee” under state law.
The law will also expand requirements in the January 2019 state budget that require notice of state-mandated sexual harassment prevention policies in workers’ native languages. The January law said that, in some cases, anti-harassment training must be provided in secondary languages when enough employees of the same ethnic background work at the company. These protections are crucial to protecting immigrants and migrant workers who are often afraid to come forward and report sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
The legislature also recognized that larger companies can often pressure their workers into silence through back-door deals and mandatory arbitration agreements. The new law bans the use of mandatory arbitration clauses for all discrimination claims, giving workers their day in court. It also severely limits how non-disclosure agreements may be used, giving workers time to fully read and understand what they are agreeing and removing the pressure to sign away their right to talk about what happened to them.
In addition to making it easier for sexual harassment victims to come forward, the new laws also made the cost of violating them more serious. By requiring judges to award attorney fees to prevailing plaintiffs and allowing them to impose punitive damages, the law keeps larger companies from simply chalking up discrimination claims as a cost of doing business.
This set of laws are clearly designed to make it easier for the victims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination to come forward. They make it more costly for employers who ignore their responsibilities to investigate and respond to discrimination at work, and make sure no one falls through the cracks because of the size of the company they work for.
But even with all these protections, proving discrimination and harassment isn’t easy. The sexual harassment attorneys at Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, have decades of experience helping the victims of workplace harassment get the compensation they deserve. We know how to make the most of state and federal laws and can help you build your best case. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to an employment discrimination attorney.