With civil rights legislation generally stalled in Congress, there is a very real chance for the expansion of women’s rights in New York State. Governor Cuomo recently introduced the Women's Equality Act, his ten-point program to provide women greater protection in and outside the workplaces. Five of the Women's Equality Act’s ten points relate directly to women’s equality on the job. Those five points are:
• Amending the New York State Equal Pay Act to narrow the defenses that employers can raise for paying women lower wages than men who do similar work; to increase liquidated damages (a kind of punitive damages) to three times the actual wage loss; and to protect employees against retaliation for sharing wage information with coworkers.
• Amending the State Human Rights Law to protect victims of sex harassment in establishments with fewer than four employees. Right now, an employer must have at least four employees for the State anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws to apply.
• Attorney's fees will be available under the State Human Rights Law in sex discrimination cases. This part of the law actually does not go far enough, and through the New York chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Assn., Beranbaum Menken LLP is working to get that part of the bill changed, so that all victims of discrimination who prevail in litigation, not just women, are entitled to attorney’s fees. Without the right to attorney’s fees, lawyers will be reluctant to take cases on behalf of low and middle income workers.
• Amending the State Human Rights Law to cover discrimination based on familial status – meaning an employer would not be able to discriminate against employees because they are single, married, have or do not have children.
• Amending the State Human Rights Law to require that employers offer reasonable accommodation for pregnancy related conditions.
The Women's Equality Act is very significant legislation that promises to fill some important gaps in New York State’s employment laws as they apply to women. The current Legislative session ends on the 17th of June. If you want to help get this legislation passed, the best thing you can do is to call Senator Dean Skelos (Rep. leader) 518-455-3171 and Senator Jeff Klein (Dem. Leader) 518-455-3595. You will either get the voice mail or phone answerer. All you need to say is that you are a New Yorker; you support the Women's Equality Act and all you ask of the Senator is that he allows the bill to go to the floor for a democratic vote. It is a matter of process. Also, you should call or email your own Assembly person and senator, tell her/him that you are a constituent and urge their support of the bill.