19

August, 2021

The Lines Have Been Redrawn; “Build Back Better” with Respectful Workplaces in New York

By Tracey I. Levy

Perhaps one of the most troubling quotes coming out of the investigation of sexual harassment allegations raised against Governor Andrew Cuomo was his statement, “In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn.”  He added, “There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate.”

Indeed, there have been “generational and cultural shifts,” which were accelerated by the #MeToo movement.  The lines have been redrawn, expectations have shifted, and many organizations began revising their policies and practices years ago to hold employees to a higher standard of acceptable workplace behavior.  The law itself shifted substantially in New York State beginning in 2019, and employees (particularly managers) who do not recognize that shift now present a liability issue for their organizations.

Formerly, harassment was defined by the courts in New York, which looked to federal law to provide a wordy definition, considering, with respect to unwelcome conduct based on a protected characteristic, whether submitting to the conduct was made explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment; submitting to or rejecting the conduct was used as the basis for employment decisions affecting an individual; or the conduct had the purpose or effect of “unreasonably interfering” with an individual’s work performance or creating an “intimidating, hostile or offensive” working environment, with the final element requiring consideration of whether the behavior was so severe or pervasive as to rise to the level of actionable harassment.  The standard is a mouthful to recite, hard to memorize, and overwhelming on a powerpoint slide.

In 2019, as part of Governor Cuomo’s “Women’s Justice Agenda,” the governor signed into law sweeping changes with regard to the legal standard and enforcement provisions for claims of sexual harassment.  Significantly, the law adopted a new, far simpler definition of sexual harassment (which was subsequently broadened to harassment based on other protected characteristics), as subjecting an individual “to inferior terms, conditions or privileges of employment based on” a protected characteristic.  Not only is the new standard pithy, but the law then expressly goes on to state that an individual need not show that the behavior is severe or pervasive.  Rather, it is for the employer to demonstrate that the conduct was nothing more than a “petty slight” or “trivial inconvenience.”  The legal bar for asserting unlawful harassment dropped precipitously with the new law, and the governor’s press release at the time expressly quoted him trumpeting that change: “By ending the absurd legal standard that sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be ‘severe or pervasive’ and making it easier for workplace sexual harassment claims to be brought forward, we are sending a strong message that time is up on sexual harassment in the workplace and setting the standard of equality for women.”

So how could the very individual who made these legal changes a centerpiece of his legislative agenda have fallen so far short in his own behavior?  Why, in 2021, are we still so fervently teaching the lessons of #MeToo, and how can we effectuate lasting change?  These are the questions that keep me up at night, and that I mull over at random hours.  How do we “build back better” when it comes to workplace culture?

I have no magic antidotes, but certain elements are important in progressing toward a more comfortable workplace.

Commitment from Senior Leadership

As with so many other organizational changes, there needs to be buy-in from the top.  If senior leadership shares the New York governor’s perspective, little if anything will change in their organizations.  Senior managers need to lead by example – both in articulating a commitment to providing a respectful workplace, and in conducting themselves publicly and privately in a manner that comports with that articulated standard.

Putting Sidewalks Around the Law

Preventing harassment based on sex and other protected characteristics is the legal standard.  But when that is our only goal, we end up quibbling about whether an individual’s behaviors do or do not exceed the level of a “petty slight” or what we mean by a “trivial inconvenience.”  Organizations should aim for something broader – offering a “respectful” workplace to employees and everyone else in the workplace.  We need to define what we mean by “respectful,” and that definition should both embody and exceed the legal standard.  Perhaps that means that an organization equally prohibits bullying behavior, which is not singling someone out based on a protected characteristic, but which most certainly can create an uncomfortable or intimidating work environment.  Or perhaps the organization wants to define expectations with regard to how employees communicate with one another – that such communications should be civil, and that employees should be able to articulate their perspective and have their views duly considered.  Alternatively or additionally, employers might address respectful behavior in terms of collaboration, and fostering a team environment where individuals feel supported.  The common and essential component of all these definitions is that they put “sidewalks” around the law by setting forth standards that embody and exceed the current legal standard.  When our goal is broader than the legal standard, the harassment takes care of itself so to speak, in the sense that it is definitionally inconsistent with and therefore should not be occurring in a truly “respectful” work environment.

It Takes a Village

Managers cannot single-handedly root out harassing behavior or impose a culture of respect, nor can any individual or series of complaints give rise to lasting organizational change.  Rather, an organization needs to encourage, empower, and perhaps even mandate that its employees go from bystanders to “upstanders.”  Here the New York City subway safety tagline is most apt – “if you see something, say something,” and that is the mantra to be inculcated throughout the organization.  But it is not sufficient to adopt a catchy refrain.  Employees need to be trained – on what the standards and expectations are for measuring appropriate behavior, about how they can intervene, and on where to submit concerns.  The New York State or New York City versions of the mandatory harassment prevention training programs are not sufficient for that purpose.  Rather, targeted messages, specific to those expectations, need to be communicated to employees and then reinforced at periodic intervals.

You May Need to Change

At times, a manager will seek to excuse questioned behavior with a comment along the lines that the manager is “no different than I was when I started working here,” however many years ago that may have been.  In a nutshell, the manager’s comment precisely illustrates the problem.  The lines have been redrawn.  We are holding employees, and everyone in the workplace, to a higher standard than was the case in 2017.  But that higher standard may not be the optimal objective from a cultural perspective.  Creating a comfortable, respectful workplace requires organizations to do more.  In doing so, an organization may also reap manifold benefits in employee morale, retention, and productivity, as well as reputation, that “build back better” and even help the organization’s bottom line.

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30

November, 2020

Three Key Employment Items to Address Before the New Year

By Tracey I. Levy and Alexandra Lapes

As the new year quickly approaches, employers should aim to update their policies and practices to stay legally compliant and prepare their workforce for the new year.   In particular, employers in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey need to ensure they are complying with harassment prevention training requirements, have updated their sick and safe leave and their harassment and discrimination prevention policies, and have updated their procedures to meet new notice, payroll, and tracking requirements.

1. Training

This is year two for meeting the annual New York State and New York City interactive sexual harassment prevention training requirements.  Employers that have not yet conducted training this year should make that a priority before year-end to remain in compliance at both the state and city levels.  Note, for new hires, New York City requires employers with 15 or more employees to conduct initial training within their first 90 days, and all other New York employers are subject to the state’s requirement for training to be conducted as soon as practicable after hire.  When conducting the training, employees must be provided with a copy of the employer’s sexual harassment prevention policy, training materials, and a notice of employee rights.

Connecticut employers are also required to conduct sexual harassment prevention training, and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities recently extended that deadline to January 1, 2021.  Employers with three or more employees must train all their employees, while the smallest employers need only train those in a supervisory role.  Meeting this training obligation will satisfy an employer’s legal requirements for the next ten years as to existing employees, but on an ongoing basis, new hires need to be trained within six months after they are hired.

2. Policies

Employers should review and revise their employee handbook policies on sick and safe leave, harassment prevention, and anti-discrimination, to ensure compliance with recent changes in the law.

  • Sick and safe leave
    • New York State adopted a state-wide paid sick leave law (in addition to the pandemic-related paid leave law), that requires employers to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave per year, depending on the size of the employer.
    • New York City expanded its paid sick leave law to mirror and expand upon the state law provisions. The amendments will require New York City employers to update their paid leave policies to reflect the new updated accrual amounts and eliminate certain eligibility and waiting period requirements, as well as to add “domestic violence” as an additional basis for taking leave.
    • While Westchester County has its own paid sick leave law, the county has posted a notice on its website that the state law now governs paid leave and employers should refer to the state law for their rights and obligations. Note that there is no similar notice with regard to the Westchester County paid safe leave law, and employers should therefore assume that the safe leave law’s separate paid leave requirements are still in full force.
  • Harassment and discrimination prevention
    • Employers in New York State should update their harassment prevention policies to reflect the State Human Rights Law’s new definition of sexual harassment.
    • New York State employers must also update their policies to provide employees with appropriate notice of their rights and remedies with regard to reproductive health decisions, including a prohibition against discrimination and retaliation based on an employee’s or an employee’s dependent’s reproductive health decision-making.

3. Notice Requirements

The following payroll and tracking procedures must be put in place, in addition to meeting new notice and posting requirements.

  • Payroll and Tracking
  • New York State employers must:
    • Maintain paid sick leave records for no less than six years; and
    • Be prepared to timely provide employees with a summary of the amount of sick leave accrued and used upon request.
  • New York City employers must additionally provide:
    • Accrual, usage, and paid sick leave balance information to employees each pay period;
    • Written notice by January 1, 2021 (see notice link here) of employees’ paid sick leave rights at hire and to current employees of organizations with 100 or more employees, and conspicuously post that notice; and
    • Retain compliance records for at least three years.
  • Westchester County employers must additionally provide:
    • A Notice of Employee Rights and a copy of the County’s Safe Leave Law to all new hires; and
    • Display the required Safe Time poster both in English and Spanish, in a conspicuous location.
  • New Jersey employers with 10 or more employees must ensure they have:
    • Updated their payroll statements to ensure that they each specify: the employee’s gross and net wages; the employee’s rate of pay; and, for hourly employees, the number of hours worked during the pay period.
  • Job Protection
  • New Jersey employers must have conspicuously posted (as of April 1, 2020), two notices regarding employee misclassification.
  • Connecticut employers must provide information on the illegality of sexual harassment and remedies available to new hires within three months of their start date and send this information to each employee.
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12

August, 2019

New York State Amends Other HRL Discrimination Protections – Broad Protections Expanded Well Beyond Sexual Harassment

By Tracey I. Levy, Esq. and Alexandra Lapes, Esq.

Just over a year after New York enacted sweeping protections against sexual harassment, Governor Cuomo today signed into law further amendments to the New York State Human Rights Law to provide more expansive protections for employees based on any protected characteristic.

SPECIAL ALERT – IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED

Distribute Policy for Harassment Prevention Training

Of most immediate concern, employers who are racing to comply with the October 9 deadline for year one of harassment prevention training should note that, effective immediately, employers are mandated to distribute a copy of their sexual harassment prevention policy at every training session, as well as at hire, both in English and in the employee’s primary language.

Other Significant Changes

In addition to the policy distribution requirement, New York State’s new law extends the Human Rights Law’s requirements to employers of any size, as well as domestic workers, and expands the law’s protections to contractors, consultants and vendors who can show the employer knew or should have known of discrimination directed at them and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action that was within its ability.

In addition, the new law:

  • Broadly defines unlawful harassment as subjecting an individual to inferior terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of an individual’s protected characteristic(s);
  • Eliminates the employee’s obligation to prove that harassing conduct is severe and/or pervasive;
  • Declares that an employee need not show that a comparative individual was treated more favorably;
  • Mandates that the state’s Human Rights Law be construed liberally, regardless of how comparable federal or other states’ laws may be interpreted; and
  • Eliminates the employer’s ability to defend the complaint on the grounds that the employee failed to raise an internal complaint;
  • But it permits employers to defend a claim by proving that the harassing conduct does not rise above the level of what a reasonable person in the shoes of the plaintiff would consider petty slights or trivial inconveniences.

For most employers, these changes will not require any revisions to their existing harassment prevention policy.  However, the “sidewalks” that most policies build around the legal standards have now gotten much narrower, and the amendments collectively make it significantly easier for an employee to support a legal claim of unlawful harassment.  Procedurally, the law increases the remedies available in litigation to include punitive damages and attorneys’ fees for a prevailing plaintiff (while an employer can seek recovery of its attorneys’ fees only if it shows the case was frivolous); and extends the statute of limitations for sexual harassment claims from one to three years.  With the exception of the change in the statute of limitations (which takes effect one year after enactment of the new law), all these changes take effect within the next 60 to 180 days.

Moving beyond litigation, the new law expands the confidentiality and mandatory arbitration clause restrictions adopted last year for sexual harassment claims to now apply to any claim of harassment or discrimination under the Human Rights Law, and it voids out any confidentiality clause to the extent it precludes participation in a government agency investigation or impedes a complainant’s filing for unemployment insurance, Medicaid or other public benefits.  As of January 1, 2020, any non-disclosure provision to which a complainant affirmatively consents must include language confirming that it does not prevent the employee from speaking with law enforcement, a human rights enforcement agency, or an attorney.

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15

May, 2018

What’s Different About New York’s Harassment Prevention Training Mandate

Beginning this fall, employers in New York State will be required to provide interactive harassment prevention training to employees.  This is not a new concept – such training has been mandated for years in California, Connecticut and Maine – but the scope, nature and frequency of the training are quite different from what other states have legally required.  Consider:

  • All private employers are covered – other states only mandate employers of a certain size to provide such training; New York’s law applies to every private sector employer;
  • All employees are covered – other states only mandate training for those at a supervisor level or above; New York’s law covers employees at every level of the organization;
  • It must be done annually – other states require biannual training;
  • It needs to cover legal rights and remedies with regard to sexual harassment – other states take a more holistic approach to discussing all forms of unlawful harassment, discrimination and retaliation; a prudent New York State employer would do the same and look beyond just sexual harassment;
  • There is no minimum duration – other states mandate two hours of training; New York sets no time limit, but mandates interactivity and a list of subjects to be covered.

The Department of Labor and the Division of Human Rights are currently working to develop a model of the type of training program they expect employers to implement.

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