Earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a suite of new protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. Many experts believe the changes will make it easier for victims of sexual harassment to obtain relief through the Division of Human Rights or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But what, exactly, does it do?
Expanding the standard for what counts as sexual harassment
Perhaps the most important change is to the definition of actionable sexual harassment in New York state law. In the past, a victim had to prove not only that sexual harassment was occurring but also that it was “severe or pervasive.” This was meant to prevent claims over behavior that was minimal or only occurred one or two times. Unfortunately, it ended up leaving a lot of people without redress for sexual harassment based on a determination that the behavior hadn’t been severe enough or pervasive enough.
The new law changes the standard to conduct that rises above “petty slights or trivial inconveniences.” This standard is expected to be easier for victims to prove.
The new law also makes clear that New York’s courts are to view these claims liberally, regardless of how federal courts interpret federal civil rights law. This potentially means that plaintiffs in New York could have an easier time obtaining relief than would federal plaintiffs.
Limiting the effect of nondisclosure agreements
In the past, when companies settled sexual harassment claims out of court, they often made signing a nondisclosure agreement a condition of the settlement. This kept victims from speaking out about their harassers. In some cases, it allowed harassers to continue their unlawful behavior with relative impunity and privacy.
The new law makes clear that no nondisclosure agreement can prevent a worker from filing a complaint with a state or federal agency about harassment or any form of discrimination.
In addition to those changes, the law prohibits employment contracts from mandating that discrimination and harassment complaints be resolved through arbitration. This preserves the right of the victim to file a complaint with a state or federal agency. Additionally, the new law:
- Extends the statute of limitations in cases of workplace sexual harassment from one year to three years
- Applies the law to both public- and private-sector employers
- Extends protection from sexual harassment to non-employees working in the employer’s workplace, such as contractors, subcontractors and vendors
- Requires companies to provide notice of their sexual harassment prevention policies to workers in both English and the worker’s primary language
- Gives authority to the state attorney general’s office to assist local agencies with human rights law
Finally, the law calls for a study on how best to improve our laws to prevent workplace harassment and discrimination.
If you have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, you may want to contact an attorney before you take any concrete steps to address the problem. An attorney can help you file a credible internal complaint and assist you at every step, whether that involves negotiating a settlement, filing a charge with the Division of Human Rights or the EEOC, or filing a lawsuit.