New York Enacts Sweeping Protections Strengthening Women’s Rights in the Workplace

10.30.2015

By: Dina M. Mastellone

On October 21, 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law sweeping legislation to protect and further women’s equality in New York State. The new laws, which go into effect on January 19, 2016, will help achieve pay equity, end discrimination based on familial status, and require reasonable accommodations for pregnancy in all workplaces.  The package of bills was part of Governor Cuomo’s Women's Equality Act that was first introduced in 2013. The Women’s Equality Act amends the New York Equal Pay Act, the New York Labor Law, and the New York State Human Rights Law. Employers should use the period from now until January 19, 2016 to assess their existing pay structure, employee handbooks, and human resources policies to ensure compliance with the new laws. Women’s Equality Act This bill (S. 1 / A. 6075) strengthens New York State’s law prohibiting employers from paying women less than men for performing the same work. The bill eliminates a loophole in the current law that allows employers to prohibit employees from discussing their salaries under threat of termination or suspension. Specifically, the bill allows employees to discuss their wages with each other. Further, the bill increases the amount of damages to 300% of unpaid wages available to an employee if an employer willfully violates the law and provides aggrieved plaintiffs with the opportunity to collect liquidated damages, as well as the potential to recover their attorneys’ fees in bringing such action. Discrimination Based on Familial Status This bill (S. 4 / A. 7317) amends the New York State Human Rights Law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of familial status, in addition to the current prohibition against discrimination on the basis of marital status. The new law also restricts employers from inquiring into or considering parental status when making employment decisions, such as those relating to hiring, firing, compensation, promotions, and/or raises. Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Employees This bill (S. 8 / A. 4272) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with pregnancy-related conditions, including miscarriage, abortion, childbirth, and subsequent recovery. Reasonable accommodations are likely to include bathroom breaks, water breaks, time off for doctors’ appointments, and leaves of absence during periods of disability. Protections for Victims of Sexual Harassment This bill (S. 2 / A. 5360) protects all employees from sexual harassment in the workplace regardless of the size of the employer. Currently, the definition of “employer” excludes employers with fewer than 4 employees, thus prohibiting individuals from filing harassment complaints with the Division of Human Rights against those employers. This new law expands the definition of “employer” to cover all employers within New York State in sexual harassment cases so that an employee of any business can file a workplace sexual harassment complaint. Recovery of Attorneys’ Fees For Sex Discrimination Claims The law amends the New York State Human Rights Law to permit the recovery of reasonable attorneys’ fees for plaintiffs who succeed in proving sex-discrimination. Recent amendments also permit a successful defendant to recover attorneys’ fees where the defendant can show that the plaintiff’s claims were frivolous. For more information regarding these changes and how your business can implement effective human resource polices prior to the January 19, 2016 implementation deadline, please contact John C. Petrella, Director of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group at jpetrella@genovaburns.com or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@genovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.  

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