How have protections for workplace harassment victims improved in New York? | Katz Melinger PLLC
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How have protections for workplace harassment victims improved in New York?

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On August 19, 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law some important amendments to New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL). These significant changes marked the beginning of ongoing updates to NYSHRL.

The various changes to NYSHRL were scheduled to roll out throughout the year following Governor Cuomo's initial signing of the bill. In addition to the new workplace harassment protections set out in August and October of last year, more changes will come into play in 2020.

What is the broader application of NYSHRL?

The earlier changes, which went into effect in August and October of last year, included a mandate that the NYSHRL should be liberally construed, without reference to any federal law. This opens the door for more people to bring about successful claims of violations in the workplace under the NYSHRL.

The October 2019 amendments made some of the most sweeping changes. These include an express protection from harassment based on any protected class, and an extension of harassment laws to cover domestic workers. The amendments also made it easier for victims of harassment to establish their claims. According to New York State's Division of Human Rights, harassment now includes instances in which an employee is subject to "inferior terms, conditions or privileges of employment." Additionally, the recent updates to NYSHRL eliminate the former "severe or pervasive" standard of proof, and specify that a complainant does not need to identify a similarly situated person or complain to their employer about the harassment in order to establish a claim.

The changes also include added protections for non-employees (e.g. contractors, subcontractors, and consultants), makes punitive damages available against private employers and prohibits confidentiality or non-disclosure provisions in settlement agreements unless it is the complainant's preference to include such language.

What do the most recent changes mean?

While the October 2019 changes proved the most dramatic and sweeping, they did not mark the end of the changes to come under the NYSHRL.

Effective January 1, 2020, settlement agreements for claims brought under the NYSHRL cannot prevent complainants from speaking to a lawyer or to appropriate authorities about their claims.

Effective February 8, 2020, the NYSHRL applies to every employer in New York State, whereas the NYSHRL previously only applied to employers with four or more employees. While this change does not affect employers with four or more employers who were already subject to the NYSHRL, it tremendously impacts small businesses that until recently were not subject to the law.

These changes will have a significant impact on both employees and employers alike. Employees need to know their rights, while employers must understand the changing legal landscape of employment law in order to avoid exposure and inadvertent violations of these laws.

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