What Executives Need to Know about New York’s New Sexual Harassment Laws
At a national level, two recent federal laws — passed with rare bipartisan support — empower survivors of sexual abuse in the workplace to speak out about their experiences and hold perpetrators accountable for wrongdoing in court.
This year also brought some important developments to sexual harassment law at the state level.
In March 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed into law three new bills strengthening the state’s laws offering recourse to survivors of sexual misconduct in the workplace.
In this blog post, our New York sexual harassment lawyers dig into how New York law protects workers against sexual harassment.
We will also take a look at the 2022 bills expanding these protections, and break down the steps employees can take if they’re experiencing sexual harassment at work.
Sexual Harassment Law in New York State
In New York state, sexual harassment is prohibited under New York’s Human Rights Law; it’s considered a form of discrimination. New York City has its own Human Rights Law that prohibits sexual harassment.
Behaviors that fall under workplace sexual harassment include, but aren’t limited to:
- Sexual comments or questions,
- Requests for sexual favors,
- Unnecessary or inappropriate physical contact, or
- Display of lewd images or drawings.
Harassment doesn’t have to happen repeatedly for it to be illegal.
If any behavior creates an offensive or hostile work environment, or if you’re pressured to engage in any unwanted sexual activities as a condition for employment or advancement, that is a violation of New York Human Rights Law.
All of which would be grounds for filing an official charge.
Under New York state and New York City law, remedies available for employees who’ve suffered sexual harassment can include protections like punitive damages, economic damages, interest and cease-and-desist orders as well as other financial relief and damages.
How Did New York’s Sexual Harassment Laws Change in 2022?
The three laws that Governor Hochul signed in March 2022 expand upon and revise the New York Human Rights Law in the following ways:
- They establish a toll-free hotline where those who experience sexual harassment can make confidential complaints and receive legal advice (Bill S812A).
As of July 2022, anyone who experiences sexual harassment at work can call 1-800-HARASS-3 (1-800-427-2773) to confidently file a report and receive free legal counseling regarding their complaint.
The toll-free hotline operates during regular weekly business hours and is manned by pro bono lawyers from the NY State Division of Human Rights (DHR).
The confidential hotline is available to all workers in New York, even if they are not technically employees, when they suffer harassment.
Subcontractors, vendors, and anyone who provides a service in the workplace (repair, cleaning, etc.) are entitled to the state’s protections.
For example, if a consultant working with a tech company is subject to repeated unwanted advances from an employee there, she can file a complaint against the client company through New York Human Rights Law.
- The laws prohibit the release of personnel files as retaliation for making a sexual harassment complaint (Bill S.5870).
Retaliation occurs when an employer takes punitive action against an employee for engaging in a protected activity: for example, firing a worker for requesting disability accommodations, FMLA leave, or reporting discrimination.
This bill expands New York’s legal definition of unlawful retaliation to specifically ban the disclosure of personnel records of an employee who speaks out about workplace harassment in order to discredit their claim.
This law is largely seen as a response to former Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was accused of leaking the personnel file of a former staffer who accused him of harassment.
Employers can legally disclose these files, though, if they’re prompted by a court to do so as part of a legal action or civil suit.
- They include all public workers employed by the state within the provisions of New York Human Rights Law’s protections against sexual harassment (S.3395B)
This final bill names New York state as the official employer of certain public workers who were formerly not included in the state’s DHR protections, e.g., the staff of certain elected officials or judges.
This closes a loophole that excluded the state from being considered an employer legally responsible for enforcing anti-harassment protections for all public employees.
What Does This Mean for Those Who’ve Experienced Sexual Harassment in New York Moving Forward?
If you’re being (or have been) sexually harassed at work, you now have three ways of filing an official complaint with the New York Division of Human Rights:
- Through the new confidential hotline (1-800-427-2773)
- Via the form on the Division of Human Rights website
- In person at a Division of Human Rights office
It’s important to know there is a deadline for filing reports of discrimination with the New York DHR. For most cases of discrimination at work, employees must make their complaint within one year of the discriminatory event.
However, in the case of sexual harassment, you have up to three years to file a charge. But waiting too long to make a report can be unwise.
The more that time passes, the greater risk of inaccuracies in memory or the loss of key evidence and documentation.
Be aware of potential retaliation on your employer’s part. It’s illegal for your boss to take punitive action against you for opposing discriminatory workplace practices, filing complaints, or taking part in an investigation into discrimination.
If you’re threatened with or experience adverse professional consequences after making a sexual harassment complaint, you should make a report to the New York Attorney General’s office.
In addition to reporting your experience to the New York Division of Human Rights, you can also file a federal complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
But only if your workplace has more than 15 employees. You also must file your complaint within 180 days of the misconduct.
Contact a New York Employment Lawyer Today
Consulting with an experienced attorney can help you navigate the ins and outs of the sexual harassment complaint process.
A lawyer specifically trained in employment law is best suited to guide you through the reporting process in a timely manner, assess your options for seeking legal remedies, and advocate for you in the case of litigation.