Gird your loins, chauvinist bosses and creepy male co-workers: the New York Women’s Equality Act took effect Jan. 19, and it has a whole bunch of new protections for women in the workplace. It amends the New York State Human Rights Laws with new language that makes it much harder for employers to wiggle out of pay disparity and sexual harassment lawsuits, and also increases the rights of pregnant employees.
Below are five key changes that will improve women’s rights in the workplace. We’ve explained what the old laws were, and how the new Act changes each of them. We’ve also cited the legal jargon directly, in case you ever have to bring up the specifics of the Act with your boss. (Here’s hoping you never have to.)
1. Women can’t be paid less because of race or gender.
The New York Women’s Equality Act closes a major loophole that was perpetuating pay disparity among women, especially women of color. Under the old law, employers could argue that “any other factor than sex” was the reason they were paying women less — which, for instance, could allow an employer to claim that a male employee generates more revenue than a female employee. The new law abolishes that arbitrary standard.
Now, an employer defending a pay disparity lawsuit must offer proof of a “bona fide factor” other than sex, which is both “job-related” and “consistent with business necessity.” The law specifically references “education, training, [and] experience” as factors that may warrant different rates of pay. The new law also “trebles” (multiplies by 300 percent) the unpaid wages as a way to punish employers who willfully violate the law. So, for example, if you sue because men in your same position have made $50,000 per year more than you for the past three years, you could be awarded $450,000.
2. Employers can’t muzzle co-workers’ discussions about salary.
In order to discourage lawsuits, employers often prohibit their employees from discussing salaries with their co-workers. Without knowing the salaries of their co-workers, women are unable to gauge whether they’re being paid less than their male counterparts. Worse, employers can sometimes reprimand or terminate employment when women ask about co-worker salaries. The New York Women’s Equality Act states that “no employer shall prohibit an employee from inquiring about, discussing or disclosing the wages of such employee or another employee.”
3. Small businesses can’t run from harassment lawsuits just because they’re small.
Under the old rule in New York, if a company employed less than four employees in New York, a woman couldn’t sue her boss for sexually harassing her at work. Which is ridiculous, since 60 percent of businesses in New York have less than four employees.
The new rule makes it so that a sexual harassment lawsuit can be brought against an employer of any size: “…in the case of an action for discrimination based on sex […] with respect to sexual harassment only, the term “employer” shall include all employers within the state.”
4. Women can’t get fired for having kids.
The New York Women’s Equality Act prohibits “workplace discrimination on the basis of familial status.” This means that a woman can no longer be denied a job, fired from the one she has or turned down for a promotion because she has a family. (It’s sad, but the running stereotypes about women as being family-burdened affect employer decisions in hiring, firing and promoting them. This type of discrimination hurts those who need protection the most — some 70 percent of children living with single mothers are poor or low-income.)
5. Bosses have to accommodate pregnant employees.
Pregnancy discrimination is on the rise, posing a real problem to the economic security of many families, especially for low-wage workers whose employers are less forgiving. The new law makes it illegal to deny reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees, such as increased bathroom breaks and more comfortable chairs.
While the New York Women’s Equality Act is a great step forward, the benefits won’t be realized until New Yorkers are made fully aware of the rights they possess and feel encouraged by their community to stand up when they’ve been wronged.
Zachary J. Liszka, Esq. is a New York employment lawyer focusing on workplace discrimination, harassment and unpaid wage litigation. His website is www.liszkalaw.com.