Cuomo, workplace, harassment
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law this week that will likely lead to an increase in workplace harassment and discrimination cases. Most notable, it removes the "severe or pervasive" requirement for harassment to be considered the company's responsibility, holding employers more accountable for their workers' conduct. (Photo: Pat Arnow via Flickr)

Cuomo Signs Bill that Expands Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Laws

Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was expected to sign a bill that would amend and strengthen existing workplace harassment and discrimination laws. This week, he delivered.

Related Story: New York State Expands Workplace Harassment Laws

The legislation, which Cuomo signed into law Aug. 12, has dozens of amendments to New York’s existing workplace harassment laws, but its most notable changes include removing the “severe or pervasive” wording, which set a requirement for the level of severity abusive conduct must have before a company can be held accountable. Additionally, the new law expands the definition of what a company can consider an “employee,” including independent contractors and other outside workers who serve an organization.

Cuomo had previously called the “severe or pervasive” standard “absurd,” and now, any conduct on the basis of age, race, sex and other, expanded categories that is beyond “petty slights and trivial inconveniences” can be considered workplace harassment for which the employer is responsible. The law now covers private employers, including small businesses that were exempt from the previous law, state and local governments, domestic workers and independent contractors.

In part, the action was spurred by testimonies of sexual harassment and retaliation against New York State Assembly members that came out earlier this year. The Sexual Harassment Working Group that seven former legislative employees founded pushed for the change.

The law also raises the statute of limitations in filing a claim with the Division of Human Rights from one to three years.

Additionally, it requires a thorough review of employers’ harassment and discrimination policies every four years.

And employers are going to want to tighten up their policies: The main defense an employer may have in a harassment of discrimination case — that the victim did not make a complaint to the employer — is now unusable. Even if an individual “did not make a complaint about the harassment to such employer, licensing agency, employment agency or labor organization” it “shall not be determinative” as to whether or not the employer be held liable, the law says.

Therefore, even if the harassment happens outside of business hours or over text, companies can still be held responsible, which has sparked controversy. Employers can expect an increase in harassment and discrimination cases as a result of the new legislation.

The law will take effect in three phases starting in two months.

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