By Tracey I. Levy and Alexandra Lapes
Spring cleaning is a great time for employers to revisit their employee handbook policies to confirm that they comply with current legal obligations. In addition to updates prompted by new legislation, there are more long-standing, New York-specific requirements that we find employers may overlook. These include specific provisions on accommodation of breastfeeding employees, protection of reproductive health decisions, and smoking prohibitions.
Policy on Lactation Accommodation
All New York State employers are required to make reasonable efforts to provide their employees with a designated room or other private, sanitary location that is not a bathroom, as well as reasonable unpaid break time, for the purposes of expressing breast milk. New York City law requires that employers have a written policy regarding the rights of nursing mothers to express milk at work, which it distributes to all employees upon hire. The New York State Division of Labor Standards has similarly issued guidelines that employers are expected to provide employees who are returning to work following the birth of a child with written notice, either individually or through a written handbook policy, regarding their right to break time and an appropriate location for expressing breast milk.
A declarative statement as to the availability of appropriate time and space to express breast milk, or of the employer’s support of its breast-feeding employees, may not be sufficient. The New York City law specifies a plethora of provisions that must be in the written policy, including:
- a statement of the employee’s right of access to an appropriate lactation room and reasonable break time to use it;
- how to request access to the designated lactation room;
- reference to the employer’s obligation to respond to access requests within a reasonable timeframe, not to exceed five business days;
- a procedure to follow when two or more individuals need to use the room at the same time; and
- assure employees that if the request poses an undue hardship, the employer will engage in a cooperative dialogue with the employee to provide a reasonable accommodation.
Reproductive Health Decisions Policy
All employers in New York State are prohibited from discrimination based on an employee’s or the employee’s dependent’s reproductive health decisions. The law further requires that any New York employer that provides an employee handbook to its employees must include in the handbook a notice of employee rights and remedies under the law. This includes notice that:
- employers are prohibited from accessing an employee’s personal information regarding the employee’s or the employee’s dependent’s reproductive health decision making;
- employers are prohibited from discriminating or retaliating against an employee based on the employee’s or dependent’s reproductive health decision making;
- employers are prohibited from requiring an employee to sign a waiver of the employee’s right to make reproductive health decisions; and
- employees have the right to bring a civil action against the employer for violation of the law and available remedies.
Some employers satisfy this obligation with a separate reproductive decisions policy. Others may choose to incorporate the requisite provisions pertaining to reproductive health decisions into existing handbook policies that prohibit discrimination and retaliation and specify employees’ legal rights and available remedies under the laws against harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
Note: a March 29, 2022 federal district court decision, CompassCare et.al v. Cuomo, has permanently enjoined enforcement of the notice requirement with regard to reproductive health decisions, on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment.
Smoking Prohibitions in the Workplace
It has been several decades since New York State, New York City, and various counties adopted laws prohibiting smoking in the workplace and other public areas, such that those restrictions are no longer novel or surprising to most workers. This cultural shift may lead employers to overlook a long-standing requirement in many of the local laws, including from Westchester County and Suffolk County, that employers adopt and maintain written policies against smoking in the workplace. New York City’s law goes a bit further in its specificity. The New York City law requires every employer to have and distribute to all new employees when hired a written policy outlining:
- the legal prohibitions on smoking and the use of electronic cigarettes;
- the protection from retaliation for employees or applicants who exercise their right to a smoke-free workplace; and
- the employer’s procedure for an employee to raise concerns in the event of perceived retaliation.
The passage of time can dull any employer’s recollection of when handbook policies are simply memorializing employer expectations and practices, and when those policies are driven by legal requirements. The latter must be maintained and updated as the law changes. Now is a great time for employers to take stock of their handbook policies, and ensure they have the requisite provisions to comply with the law.