On October 21, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a series of bills that expands the state’s gender-based employment protections, which are commonly known as the Women’s Equality Act. Each of the following laws take place on January 19, 2016.
Expanded Equal Pay Protections
The first bill is a series of four amendments to New York Labor Law (NYLL) section 194, which addresses gender pay disparities.
1. No employee shall be paid less than an employee of the same sex in a position that requires the same responsibility, equal skill, and effort.
Exceptions: Payment is based off a seniority system, a merit system, a system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production, or any factor other than sex.
2. The second amendment clarifies that workers shall be considered working in the same establishment if the workplaces are located in the same geographical region, no larger than a county. Employees may seek gender-pay disparity claims based on employees working in different facilities as long as the facilities are in the same region.
3. The third amendment does not prohibit an employee for seeking information about wages of other employees. Employers are still allowed to maintain a policy imposing reasonable limits on “the time, place, and manner for inquiries or discussions on wages.” It is important to update the employee handbook to comply with this amendment.
4. An employee may recover liquidation damages equal to 300% of the unpaid wages owed to the employee if there is a violation of NYLL section 194.
Accommodations for Pregnant Employees
The second bill requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees because of a “pregnancy-related condition.” Currently, employers are only required to provide accommodations to disabled workers. The law requires the employee who requests an accommodation to provide medical or other information necessary to verify the existence or the pregnancy related condition, or that is necessary for consideration of the accommodation.
Ban on “Familial Status” Discrimination
The third bill passed adds “familial status” to the list of protected classes under the state’s anti-discrimination law. It is now placed on equal status as race, age, and religion. The law states that an employer may not discriminate, harass, retaliate or otherwise treat employees or applicants unlawfully based on their familial status. This law makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of their status as a parent. However, an employer is not required to provide reasonable accommodations based on the employee’s familial status.
Familial status is defined as: any person who is pregnant or has a child or is in the process of securing legal custody of any individual who has not attained the age of 18, or an individual being domiciled with another parent or person with legal custody of the individual.
Attorneys’ Fees for Prevailing Parties
The fourth bill permits, but does not require state courts and the New York State Division of Human Rights to award attorneys’ fees- to a prevailing party in a case involving a discrimination claim based on an employee’s sex. Employers can only recover attorney fees if they can show the employee’s claim was frivolous.
Sexual harassment claims can be brought against all employers
In the past, the state’s anti-discrimination law has only protected individuals employed by entities with four or more employees. This new bill expands coverage, where sexual harassment claims may be asserted against all employers, regardless of size. Each employer that previously did not have to worry about this should develop comprehensive anti-harassment policies for the handbook, and train employees.
What to do?
Since each of these new laws will go into effect on January 16, 2016, employers should immediately review their workplace policies and make changes to ensure compliance with the new laws.