On October 21, 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed multiple pieces of legislation designed to protect and further women’s equality in the State of New York. While the new laws, which all went into effect on January 19, 2016, deal with a broad range of legal issues, including human trafficking and domestic violence, a substantial focus of the legislation was strengthening women’s rights in the workplace.

All of these changes are not merely cosmetic, or intended to codify prior court decisions. Rather, they represent significant substantive changes to New York employment law, and have substantially updated what many deemed to be outdated and incomplete protections for women in the workplace (though all of these changes, sans pregnancy, apply equally to men).

Should you have any questions or require further detail regarding this legislation, the employment and labor attorneys at Hill Wallack LLP are fully prepared to assist and help guide you through this sea of change.

Pay Equity- the first piece of legislation amended New York Labor Law s. 194, which addresses equal pay in the workplace. The bill eliminates a loophole in the prior law that allowed employers to prohibit employees from discussing their salaries (as well as the salaries of others) under the threat of termination or suspension. Specifically, the bill would allow employees to discuss their wages with each other. Further, the bill increases the amount of damages available to an employee if an employer willfully violates the law.

Sexual Harassment- another bill amends the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”) to protect all employees from sexual harassment in the workplace regardless of the size of the employer. Previously, the definition of “employer” excluded employers with fewer than four 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 in sexual harassment cases so that an employee of any business, regardless of size, can file a workplace sexual harassment complaint.

Attorneys’ Fees- a further bill now allows successful plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees in employment discrimination cases based on sex. Under prior New York State law, plaintiffs could not recover attorney fees for employment discrimination cases, making it costly to bring a case.

Familial Status- an additional amendment to the NYSHRL prohibits employment discrimination based on familial status. Previously, New York State law only prohibited discrimination based on familial status in the areas of housing and credit, however, employees often suffer from stereotypes relative to their status as parents or guardians of children under the age of eighteen. It is believed that women have been disproportionately affected by stereotyped views of parents in the work place and are less likely to be recommended for hire or promoted.

Pregnancy Discrimination- a further amendment to the NYSHRL now requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees (or those suffering from “pregnancy-related conditions”). Some pregnancies can result in medical conditions requiring certain accommodations within the workplace and prior protections for pregnant women were deemed confusing and subject to misinterpretation. This new law clarifies that employers must perform a reasonable accommodation analysis for pregnant employees. Essentially this amendment puts pregnant women, as well as those suffering from pregnancy-related conditions, on equal footing with disabled employees when it comes to requests for reasonable workplace accommodations.