Legislation bolsters workplace harassment protections

Photos by Kevin P. Coughlin, courtesy of the Governor’s Office
March 16, 2022 – New York City – Governor Kathy Hochul signs a package of legislation to address workplace harassment and discrimination. The bills were signed at a Women’s History Month celebration with advocates for gender equity and women’s rights.

The Senate and Assembly have advanced legislation that will bolster the state’s protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. The seven bills aim to solve issues such as “no rehire” clauses, retaliation against employees who speak out against workplace harassment, and reforming the law for nondisclosure agreements.

The legislation would also create a hotline for complaints of workplace sexual harassment, extend rights to more types of employees, and increase statutes of limitations for workplace harassment. 

“It is the right of every New Yorker to be treated equally and respectfully in the workplace. As lawmakers, it is our responsibility to protect survivors of sexual assault and harassment and ensure that all employers in New York State foster a safe and respectful work environment for their employees,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. 

“This legislation works to close loopholes, extend the statute of limitations, and ensure that sexual harassment policies are clear for all employees across the public and private sectors. I applaud today’s bill sponsors for their unrelenting advocacy on these issues.”

Bill S.738, sponsored by Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, also known as the “Let Survivors Speak Act” will reform current NDA laws that financially penalize survivors who speak out about their abuse.

A NDA refers to an agreement in contract law that certain information will remain confidential, including but not limited to, information on workplace sexual harassment. This bill would not permit any case resolution where the victim has to pay for violating a NDA through reporting their abuse.

Biaggi also sponsored a bill, S.812A, which was signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul on March 16. This law will establish the Workplace Sexual Harassment Hotline, a toll-free confidential hotline to report workplace sexual harassment.

“As a Legislature, we must build upon this momentum and enact legislation that will protect working New Yorkers across all sectors and create a truly harassment-free New York. This is why I am proud to have two of my bills, S.812A and S.738, pass today. Both of these bills will strengthen sexual harassment protections in the workplace and provide survivors with the opportunity to freely speak their truth, without fear of retaliation.” said Biaggi.

The bill, S.3395A, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Gounardes and signed into law by Hochul on March 16, clarifies who is considered an employee of public employers that are covered under the anti-discrimination provisions laid out by the Human Rights Law. Previous interpretations of “employer” excluded the personal staff of elected officials and judges in certain cases. This bill will rectify that.

“Alongside the Sexual Harassment Working Group, NELA, and many other fierce and brave advocates, I have been working to close the personal staff loophole for years. I am incredibly proud that today, we have finally won,” said Gounardes regarding this bill’s proposal.

Photos by Kevin P. Coughlin, Office of Governor Kathy Hochul
Legislation S.812B/A.2035B establishes a toll free confidential hotline for complaints of workplace sexual harassment. Bill S.3395B/A.2483B includes the State and all public employers as subject to the provisions of the Human Rights Law. Legislation S.5870/A.7101 prohibits the release of personnel files as a retaliatory action against employees.

Another bill sponsored by Gounardes, S.766, will ban “no rehire” clauses in settlement agreements for employees or independent contractors that have filed a claim against their employer.

When employees file a claim against an employer for harassment in the workplace, oftentimes, as part of a settlement offer, employers would include a “no-rehire” provision to ensure that the victim of harassment is never allowed to work for their company in the future. Implementation of this bill would ban including such a provision to ensure peoples careers are not jeopardized for speaking out against injustices in the workplace.

“Banning ‘no rehire’ clauses in settlements ensures that New Yorkers don’t lose their careers as a result of speaking out,” said Gounardes.

In line with his other career protection bills, Gounardes proposed another bill which was also signed into law on March 16, S.5870, which prohibits the firing of personnel or employees as a retaliatory action against employees who complain or assist in proceedings involving unlawful discriminatory practices by employers.

Perhaps one of the biggest deterrents of filing complaints against employers due to workplace sexual harassment is the looming threat of losing employment as a result of publicizing such an occurrence. This bill would not only protect the complainant’s job, but also anybody else’s in the workplace who helps them with the process such as a co-worker who backs up the accuser’s statements.

The final two bills, S.849A and S.566A, sponsored by Gounardes and Sen. Brad Hoylman respectively, would see to it that the statute of limitations for employment discrimination, including sexual harassment, is extended from three years to six years, and the statute of limitations is extended to three years for all unlawful discriminatory complaints brought to the Division of Human Rights.

“New York’s Human Rights Law provides a powerful protection against discrimination and harassment, but its arbitrarily short statute of limitations for filing administrative complaints often benefit those who are discriminating and harassing,” Hoylman said. “Our legislation to extend the statute of limitations for filing complaints with the Division of Human Rights from one to three years will give victims more time to come forward.”

These bills take into consideration that it often takes time for some victims to come forward and share their stories, so a short time window for them to press charges is not enough for justice to be served, the bill’s supporters say.