New York Strengthens Sexual Harassment Protections, Enacts Other New Employment Laws

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

August 23, 2019

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed several employment laws this summer that provide new rights for employees. Most notably, he signed amendments to the state's Human Rights Law to strengthen protections for sexual harassment victims in the workplace.

Some of the key provisions include:

  • Eliminating the requirement that harassment be "severe or pervasive" to be legally actionable;
  • Mandating that all employment nondisclosure agreements include language permitting employees to file a discrimination or harassment complaint; and
  • Extending the time period an individual has to file a sexual harassment claim from one year to three years.

Effective October 11, the amendments clarify that harassment is unlawful when it subjects an individual to inferior terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of the individual's membership in one or more protected categories. They also expand existing protections for domestic workers and extend the law's coverage to non-employees.

In signing the legislation, Gov. Cuomo said, "There has been an ongoing, persistent culture of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination in the workplace, and now it is time to act."

Hairstyle Discrimination Ban

New York joined California last month in prohibiting discrimination based on natural hair or hairstyle. The measure bars businesses from implementing policies on braids, locks, twists and other hairstyles that are historically associated with race and more likely to affect black employees and job applicants.

The California and New York laws provide a warning to employers to tread carefully with dress code policies and ensure that such policies do not have a disparate impact on workers based on race.

Protecting Religious Attire, Clothing and Facial Hair

Gov. Cuomo has also signed into law another amendment to the New York State Human Rights Law prohibiting employment discrimination based on religious attire, clothing or facial hair.

Effective October 8, 2019, the amendment clarifies that the state's religious discrimination ban extends to religious attire, clothing or facial hair worn in accordance with sincerely held religious beliefs. Therefore, employers cannot refuse to hire or promote or take other discriminatory action against an individual for such reasons.

However, the measure does provide employers with an undue hardship defense if they can show that accommodating an applicant's or employee's religious practice will result in an undue hardship.