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Cuomo signs new sex harassment protections into law

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Manhattan on June

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Manhattan on June 17. Photo Credit: Marcus Santos

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Monday signed into law new workplace harassment protections for employees that local attorneys say could lead to more legal actions against employers. 

The new protections, passed by lawmakers in June, eliminate the hard-to-prove standard that harassment must be "severe or pervasive" to bring a claim, expanding employees' opportunities to take legal action.  

"There has been an ongoing, persistent culture of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination in the workplace, and now it is time to act," Cuomo said in a statement released Monday. "By ending the absurd legal standard that sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be 'severe or pervasive' and making it easier for workplace sexual harassment claims to be brought forward, we are sending a strong message that time is up on sexual harassment in the workplace and setting the standard of equality for women."

According to local labor attorneys, the previous standard resulted in more sexual harassment and discrimination cases being thrown out early in the process.

“It’s going to be more difficult for employers to avoid these claims,” Marijana Matura, a labor attorney at Shulman Kessler LLP in Melville, said in an interview last week. 

Under the language in the new legislation, employees would only need to prove that harassing workplace behavior rose above what “a reasonable victim of discrimination with the same protected characteristic would consider petty slights or trivial inconveniences.” 

While much of the discussion over the protections has been on their impact on sexual harassment claims, the legislation applies to all protected categories, including race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The new law also extends the time limit employees have to file a sexual harassment claim with the state's Division of Human Rights, limits the employer defense that a harassing behavior was never brought to the company’s attention, and expands the ban on arbitration agreements beyond sexual harassment claims to other forms of discrimination.

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