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New Law in New York Raises the Bar for Gender Equality in the Workplace

By Lauren Wojtowicz Cohen

On October 21, 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed several bills into law that seek to eliminate gender discrimination in the workplace.  The bills, which are part of the Women’s Equality Agenda first introduced by Governor Cuomo in 2013, contain several provisions that will broaden protections for women in the workplace and increase the potential liability for employers for violating existing equal pay and anti-discrimination laws.

Employers should take note that this enacted legislation: 

  1. Broadens the definition of “employer” for the purposes of sexual harassment complaints to include all employers in the state. Prior to this legislation, a business had to employ four or more employees in New York to fall within the definition of “employer.”
  2. Provides for  attorneys’ fees to successful plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases based on sex.  This serves to make legal action more accessible to employees, and also increases the potential penalty for employers.  The law also provides employers the ability to petition for attorneys’ fees if they are successful, but respondent employers may petition for attorneys’ fees only if they can show that the plaintiff’s case was frivolous or brought in bad faith.
  3. Increases the amount of damages available to an employee who establishes a willful violation of the law prohibiting disparate pay on the basis of gender from 100% of underpaid wages to 300% of wages owed. The amendment also specifically forbids employers prohibitions on employee discussions of wages.  However, it permits employers to propose limitations on the time, place, and manner by which employees may discuss wages, and the failure of an employee to adhere to those limitations may be an affirmative defense to any claims made against the employer.
  4. Adds “familial status” to prohibited  discrimination. This means that an employer may not refuse to hire or promote an employee because that employee has children.  
  5. Requires that reasonable accommodations be offered to employees with certain pregnancy-related health conditions.   

With these changes in New York law, employers should, at a minimum, review their equal employment opportunity policies and employee handbooks and revise them, if necessary, to include the addition of familial status to the list of bases upon which discrimination is prohibited.  Handbooks and policies should also be revised to reflect the availability of reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees with certain health conditions.  In addition, training materials should be reviewed and revised to make sure they reflect the current law, and employers may want to consider whether a policy regarding the appropriate time, place and manner for discussion of wages may be appropriate.

Copies of the signed bills can be accessed here.