As of January 19, 2016, significant amendments to the New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL") took effect throughout the state. The amendments strengthen protections for victims of workplace sexual harassment and sex discrimination and employees with "pregnancy--related conditions."
Protections from Sexual Harassment for Employees of Small Businesses
The protections in the NYSHRL generally do not apply to employers with fewer than four (4) employees. However, the new amendments specifically carve out an exception for claims based on sexual harassment in the workplace. In such cases, all employers in the state, regardless of size, can be held liable. See N.Y. Exec. L. Section 292(5).
Attorney's Fees for Claims of Discrimination Based on Sex
Attorney's fees in sex discrimination cases were not previously available under the statute. The amendments allow the prevailing party in a sex discrimination case to recover "reasonable attorney's fees" in the discretion of the court or commissioner of the Division of Human Rights. However, if the prevailing party is the employer in the sex discrimination case, the prevailing employer must make a motion to recover reasonable fees and demonstrate that the proceeding brought against it was frivolous. See N.Y. Exec. L. Section 297(10).
Accommodations for Pregnancy-Related Conditions
The NYSHRL was further amended to clarify the definition of a "pregnancy-related condition." Under the law as amended, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to employees with pregnancy-related conditions or risk being held liable for a discrimination suit. Under the new regulations, an employee must cooperate in providing medical information that is necessary to verify the existence of a pregnancy-related condition that entitles the employee to a reasonable accommodation. See N.Y. Exec. L. Section 296(2-a)(c). Notably, the law prevents an employer from forcing a pregnant woman to take a leave of absence, unless the employee is prevented by the pregnancy from performing the activities involved in her job in a reasonable manner. See N.Y. Exec. L. Section(1)(g).
Employers and human resource professionals should stay current on amendments to the NYSHRL to avoid being held liable for workplace discrimination. Handbooks and policies may need to be reviewed and revised. Employers, both small and large, may wish to consult counsel to ensure their handbooks and policies are fully compliant with the law and provide protections in the event of a suit under the NYSHRL.