Governor Cuomo Signs Sweeping Overhaul to New York’s Human Rights Law

A major shift that will impact every employer in New York

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As expected, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed into law a series of significant changes to New York’s Human Rights law that will impact every employer in the state. HR One summarized these changes when the legislature passed the bill earlier this summer, but it’s critical that employers familiarize themselves with these changes. The revisions to the Human Rights law substantially change how employers respond to any harassment and discrimination claims.

The changes will expand the protections of the sexual harassment prevention law to encompass all protected classes in New York State and all forms of discrimination. This includes a prohibition on mandatory arbitration of discrimination claims and requiring employees to sign non-disclosure agreements regarding discrimination claims.

The changes extend the time period an employee can file a claim with the New York State Division of Human Rights from one year to three years. It also eliminates the provision of the Human Rights law that these protections apply only to employees in organizations with 4 or more employees.

However, perhaps the most substantial change is to eliminate some of the key employer defenses against discrimination claims:

First, the standard that alleged harassment be “severe or pervasive” in order to be actionable has been updated to a standard that the allegation “rises above the level of discrimination that a reasonable victim of discrimination with the same protected characteristic would consider petty slights or inconvenience.”

Second, employers have been protected from claims when an employee fails to take advantage of their employer’s internal reporting process, but the changes effectively eliminate this affirmative defense.  This means that employees will no longer be required to follow internal complaint procedures, but can go straight to the Division of Human Rights with a complaint that could trigger an investigation, blindsiding an employer.

Effective Date

Provision

Immediately

Employers must present the sexual harassment prevention and reporting policy to employees at time of hire and during annual training

October 11, 2019

“Severe or pervasive” standard changes to “rises above the level of discrimination that a reasonable person with the same protected characteristic would consider petty slights or inconvenience.”

 

The affirmative defense for employers changes- employees do not need to go through the employers internal procedures before being able to file a claim

 

Protections of the law for sexual harassment extend to all forms of discrimination

 

Prohibition on mandatory non-disclosure agreements for any discrimination claims

 

Prohibition on mandatory arbitration for any discrimination claims

 

Permit awards of uncapped punitive damages and attorney’s fees for workplace discrimination cases

February 8, 2020

The law will cover all employers (previously employers with fewer than four employees were exempt)

August 11, 2020

The time period for an employee to file a claim with the NYS Division of human rights is extended from one to three years from the date of the alleged harassment.

 

Now that the bill has been signed employers should revise the anti-discrimination language in employee handbooks to reflect the new timeline for employees to take action regarding discrimination from one to three years, and to eliminate language that harassment be “severe or pervasive.” The best action for all employers remains training managers and supervisors on how to effectively reduce the possibility of discrimination claims by educating their teams on what is and isn’t appropriate workplace behavior.