Gov. Cuomo Signs Tougher Workplace Harassment Law

Gov. Andrew Cuomo changed the legal standard for workplace harassment claims in New York, a move that advocates said was long overdue and could result in more litigation against employers.

Source: Dow Jones | Published on August 14, 2019

Manager putting his hand on the shoulder of his secretary, at the office

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, signed a law Monday that would categorize conduct as harassment even if it wasn't "severe or pervasive" -- the previous threshold established by courts. Mr. Cuomo called that previous standard "absurd."

Harassment will now be defined as any conduct that subjects someone to inferior treatment -- beyond "petty slights and trivial inconveniences" -- on the basis of age, race, sex, religion and other specified categories. The protections cover all private employers -- small businesses were previously exempt -- as well as state and local governments, domestic workers and independent contractors.

Miriam Clark, president of the National Employment Lawyers Association/New York, said the severe or pervasive standard was unfair and that the new standard matched what is already in place in New York City.

The legislation sprouted from the first state hearings on sexual harassment and other workplace harassment in a quarter-century and were touted as a key step forward by Democrats who now fully control the state Legislature.

"Today New York stands as a beacon of hope for survivors across the country as we usher a movement into law," state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat from the Bronx who sponsored the bill, said in a statement.

The new law would also ban the use of mandatory arbitration by employers to settle disputes and increases, from one to three years, the amount of time an employee has to file a claim with the state's Division of Human Rights. It also weakens an employer's ability to defend against claims by saying an employee didn't file an internal complaint.

Frank Kerbein, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Business Council of New York State, which lobbied against the bill, said employers were already working to stamp out workplace harassment and said the new law would result in more legal claims. He said the ban on mandatory arbitration was inconsistent with federal law and predicted it would be challenged in court.

"We're concerned about being civilly liable as an employer even if we do everything correctly, as prescribed by law, and work diligently to create an environment free from harassment," he said.