New York Women’s Equality Act – Big Change, Great News!

Sexual harassment in the workplace disproportionately affects women. In 2011, for example, women filed 75% of all sexual harassment complaints with the NY State Division of Human Rights, and women filed 83% of all EEOC charges alleging unwelcome sexual harassment at work.

Up until the passage of the Women’s Equality Act, if you were sexually harassed at work but your employer had less than 4 employees, there was simply nothing you could do, because such small employers were exempt from liability under state and federal law. Often, these small “mom and pop shops” are thriving businesses, such as doctors, dentists and lawyers offices. In New York, for example, more than 60% of private employers have fewer than 4 employees, which meant that a lot of women were unable to seek justice for sexual harassment claims. Until now.

Under the Women’s Equality Act, even if you are the only employee working in your office, you can now bring a NY State Human Rights Law complaint against your company for illegal sexual harassment. Importantly, if you are successful in court, you can additionally seek attorneys’ fees on top of your own monetary recovery for back pay losses and emotional distress. This substantially increases the potential cost to employers. As a result, your negotiating leverage is also substantially increased, as is your ability to seek full compensation for your losses.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Provides Enhanced Protections

Despite the existence of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, workplace discrimination against pregnant women is rising, posing a significant threat to women and to the economic security of families.

Pregnant working women, especially lower wage women working in physically demanding jobs, frequently get pushed out of work, or they are forced to take unpaid leave when they request a simple and sensible accommodation, such a stool to sit on, more frequent restroom breaks, or temporary relief from heavy lifting.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, requires NY employers to provide a “reasonable accommodation” to pregnant employees, just as they would to any other employee with a disability. So, when you need additional time for bathroom or water breaks, or time off to see your OB/GYN, or, if you stand on your feet for long stretches at work and need to sit down occasionally now that you’re pregnant, your company must discuss and consider your need for flexibility during your pregnancy, and they must be flexible in meeting those needs, unless such flexibility would cause them an “undue hardship,” (which would almost never be the case).

Got Equal Pay for Equal Work?

Not yet, but New York is moving in the right direction. Women in NY earn only 84% of what men earn, and the positions traditionally held by women pay significantly less than the jobs that predominantly employ men.

The wage gap is even worse for African-American and Hispanic women, who earn 79% and 64%, respectively, of the salaries earned by non-Hispanic men in New York State.

If a woman doesn’t know how much her male colleagues are earning, it’s impossible to determine whether she is a victim of pay discrimination, and that’s typically the problem, because often no one in the workplace is permitted to know what a colleague is earning.

The Equal Pay Act strengthens New York’s Equal Pay Law in two powerful ways.
First, it outlaws workplace wage secrecy policies, so you can freely learn what kind of salaries your co-workers are pulling down each year, and second, it increases the “damages” (monetary compensation) available to a prevailing employee to 300% of her unpaid wages, which will provide additional leverage and firepower against your employer in negotiation or litigation of your gender disparity claim.

It will also serve to put employers on notice that their gender-based discriminatory salary policies will now be available for all to know, so the embarrassment and potential for legal action will compel many companies to move toward equality of pay for women.

Family Status Discrimination Now Illegal

Employees often suffer from stereotypes about their status as parents; especially single parents, or foster or adoptive parents, or even just guardians of children under the age of eighteen. Typically, it is women who are most affected by clichéd views of certain life situations, and these women have historically been less likely to be hired or promoted as a result. The average woman loses almost half a million dollars over her career due to the motherhood penalty.

This new law prohibits employers from discriminating against women based on a broad definition of “familial” or “parental” status, which now joins “marital status” and “domestic violence victim status” as “protected” categories for employees under the NYS Human Rights Law.

The Insurance Coverage for Pregnant Women Act, makes NY the first state that affirmatively protects women who become pregnant while uninsured, by enabling them to immediately sign up for health insurance, even if the timing of their pregnancy falls outside of an open enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act.

New protections for breastfeeding will ensure that women are educated about their breastfeeding rights because the law adds the rules for employers regarding breastfeeding and expressing breast milk to the Breastfeeding Mother’s Bill of Rights.

If you have question or concerns about your workplace rights, please contact us for a free and confidential consultation, and always remember, don’t quit before you speak with us.