New York Legislators Pass Sweeping Slate of Bias Bills

The New York Senate passed a package of bills intended to help victims of sexual harassment and other forms of workplace discrimination, including one that makes clear that employees of judges and elected officials are covered by Empire State anti-bias law.

The package passed on March 1is composed of seven bills that would establish a range of protections for workers, including extending statutes of limitations, establishing a free harassment hotline, and clarifying safeguards for state employees.

Senate Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins had this to say; “This legislation works to close loopholes, extend the statute of limitations, and ensure that sexual harassment policies are clear for all employees across the public and private sectors. I applaud today’s bill sponsors for their unrelenting advocacy on these issues.”

One of the bills would close what sponsoring Sen. Andrew Gounardes, called the “personal staff loophole” by clarifying that all state and public employees in the executive, legislative and judicial branches are covered by the state’s human rights law.

The state previously claimed the employees of judges and elected officials aren’t state workers for the purposes of harassment liability because they are “personal staff”.

Another assemblymember who sponsored the bill claimed that the new bill holds the legislature itself to the same standard as other New York employers.

“Senator Goundardes’ and my bill has closed the loophole that leaves staff vulnerable to sexual harassment and will work to tighten sexual harassment laws overall in our state. Together we are ending the culture of impunity that pervades Albany.” Many other senators agree that the bill would bar harassment, retaliation, and discrimination settlements that force victims to pay if they violate their nondisclosure agreements.

Biaggi's other bill, S.812A, would establish a confidential hotline for reporting workplace sexual misconduct. The new toll-free hotline would be run by the state's Division of Human Rights and would feature lawyers working pro bono to offer specific legal advice to callers and inform them of their rights, according to a summary of the bill.

"Both of these bills will strengthen sexual harassment protections in the workplace and provide survivors with the opportunity to freely speak their truth, without fear of retaliation. All survivors deserve the opportunity to openly seek justice, and only when we prioritize this can we build a safer, harassment-free New York," Biaggi said in a statement Tuesday.

Currently, the statute of limitations for reporting discrimination to the state's Division of Human Rights is one year after the alleged incident. Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, introduced S.566A, which would extend that period to three years for all discrimination complaints, building on a 2019 state law that established the three-year limit for sexual harassment complaints.

Gounardes sponsored four bills in the package. In addition to the bill that would close the "personal staff loophole," he introduced one he called the "No-Rehire" Ban, S.766. It would apply to post-dispute settlement agreements between employees or independent contractors and their employers.

neuter the agreement if it includes a so-called no-rehire clause, which bars the worker from applying for or taking another gig with the organization or related entities down the line.

The summary of the bill noted that with the number of companies acquiring each other these days, no-rehire clauses have started to function as "de facto noncompetes for employees that are locked out of entire industries."

Gounardes also sponsored S.849A, which would double the statute of limitations for bringing a workplace discrimination claim from three years to six.

There are plenty of reasons a victim of employment discrimination or harassment might hesitate to speak out about what happened, said the explanation for the bill on the Senate's website.

Though the three-year limit was "longer than the 180–300-day statute required under federal law, it is still not long enough for many victims of harassment who fear losing their job or being penalized for coming forward," the explanation said.

Another Gounardes bill, S.5870, would forbid employers from releasing workers' personnel records in retaliation for their participation in misconduct complaints or proceedings. A version of that bill has also passed the Assembly, according to the Senate website.

"As demonstrated by recent events, this retaliation frequently appears in the form of a leaking of personnel files with the intent to disparage or discredit a victim or witness of discrimination in the workplace," said language describing the rationale for the bill on the Senate's website.

That language may be referring to when aides for disgraced ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo distributed to the press the personnel files of one of the women who had accused him of sexual harassment, according to an August report following an investigation from New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Such an action would be classified as retaliation and banned under the state's human rights law unless the release of the records is essential as part of an investigation or legal case, the explanation said.

"For decades, an entrenched culture of abuse and corruption and outdated loopholes have silenced survivors,'' Gounardes said in a statement Tuesday. "It is our responsibility as legislators and as New Yorkers to listen to those who wish to speak up, and to ensure all workers are safe and protected in their workplaces.''

Hazel Crampton-Hays, press secretary for Hochul, said in an email to Law360 on Wednesday that "Governor Hochul strongly supports ensuring safe and respectful workplaces and strengthening anti-harassment laws, and we are reviewing this legislation."

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