New York State legislators are heading toward the forefront of cracking down on workplace sexual harassment.
They ended their 2019 session passing a plethora of expansions to the state’s existing workplace discrimination laws. Most notably, they removed the requirement for the harassment to be “severe or pervasive” in order for it to be legitimate.
The Sexual Harassment Working Group that seven former New York State legislative employees founded has pushed for changes like these.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to sign the bill into law, but this year, he advocated for the legislation with the anti-harassment group Time’s Up as part of his 2019 Women’s Agenda.
In addition to eliminating the “severe or pervasive” requirement, the expansions also dictate that an employee’s failure to make a complaint about the harassment is no longer a defense, which puts the onus on employers to overhaul and enforce their policies in the first place. They also protect non-employees operating in a place of business, including contractors, subcontractors and vendors.
Additionally, the expansions make further steps toward achieving equal pay, including all protected classes — not just gender — in their legislation.
According to the document, protected classes include age, race, creed, color, national original, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, familial status, marital status and domestic violence victim status.
This clarification is important in addressing the intersections that contribute to discrimination. For example, the statistic stating that women earn 77 cents to every man’s dollar does not include breakdowns by race. While white women earn 77 cents, Black women earn 61, Native American women earn 58 and Latina women earn 53, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. The recent 2019 Black Census also indicates Black LGBT employees are more likely to face economic hardship and unemployment.
Under these proposed laws, employers may not ask possible employees about their salary histories. The wording of the bill also prevents employers form paying workers differently for “substantially similar” work, which is less strict than the previous wording indicating “equal” work.
Other highlights of the bill include providing for punitive damages and attorneys’ fees for plaintiffs in any harassment case, expands the statute of limitations to bring such cases up from one year to three years and expands the power of the Attorney General to prosecute cases of harassment against all protected classes. It also requires employers to provide employees with a notice outlining their sexual harassment policies at their yearly sexual harassment prevention meetings. In addition to being printed in English, the notices must also be in the employees’ primary languages, if different from English.
In response to their victory, the Sexual Harassment Working Group said in a press release, “Now we stand here proud. We don’t yet have the strongest laws in the nation, but we’re a lot closer. Albany is not done yet, and neither are we.”