New workplace sexual harassment protections now in effect

By Maria Rocha-Buschel 

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last Friday that new workplace anti-discrimination and sexual harassment protections have gone into effect. Provisions of the new law, which was signed in August, eliminate the restriction that sexual harassment be “severe or pervasive” for it to be legally actionable and prohibit confidentiality agreements in employment discrimination cases. 

The provisions officially went into effect last Friday and make it clear that workplace harassment, including sexual harassment, need not be pervasive or severe for workers to file suit against an employer. The law also expands protections to include all forms of workplace discrimination for domestic workers and all contractors, subcontractors, consultants, vendors or others offering services in the workplace. 

“The ongoing culture of sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable and has held employees back for far too long,” Cuomo said. “This critical measure finally ends the absurd legal standard for victims to prove sexual harassment in the workplace and makes it easier for those who have been subjected to this disgusting behavior to bring claims forward. Now it’s time for employers across the state to step up and review their internal policies to ensure their employees are protected from harassment or discrimination and abusers who violate these standards are held accountable.”

Councilmember Keith Powers also sponsored legislation on the city level last year to address sexual harassment. His first bill as a City Councilmember, the legislation changed language in the city’s Human Rights Law so that employees at very small companies that were facing sexual harassment could file suit against their harassers. The bill was part of a package of legislation aimed at fighting sexual harassment and was to address a loophole in the law, which provided no protection to employees at these very small companies. 

“It is good news when public officials work to expand protections for New Yorkers,” Powers said in response to the new State protections. “We must make it as easy as possible to report sexual harassment, and it is a positive step that State protections are broadening and all impacted individuals are able to seek justice.”

The new provisions also allow individuals and attorneys to seek financial awards in employment discrimination cases and prohibit confidentiality requirements in discrimination settlements unless it is the employee requesting confidentiality. All confidentiality agreements should also be written in plain English and, if applicable, in the employee’s primary language. 

Governor Cuomo initially proposed these reforms as part of his 2019 Women’s Justice Agenda and again in his 2020 executive budget, but when the issue was not taken up by the state within days of the legislative session ending, he launched a campaign urging lawmakers to take action before the close of the session. 

The new measures that were ultimately enacted build on the governor’s plan to sign the nation’s most comprehensive sexual harassment package into law as part of the 2019 budget. The package includes expanding workplace harassment protections to different types of workers, in addition to requiring employers to adopt a sexual harassment prevention policy and training program. It also mandated that as of January 2019, all state contractors must confirm that they have a sexual harassment policy and that they provide sexual harassment training to all employees. 

“We must continue to change the culture and ensure women are protected from discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace and beyond,” Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul said. “These protections build on New York’s nation-leading efforts to combat sexual harassment and make sure survivors have the resources and support they need to seek justice and hold abusers accountable. This is another important step forward in advancing women’s rights and achieving full equality once and for all.”

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