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Proposed changes to New York law may help combat discrimination

How many times does someone have to make wolf whistles or brush a part of your body in order for your workplace to be considered a "hostile environment"? The question has long plagued New Yorkers fed up with workplace discrimination but unsure whether they had a solid legal case.

Proposed revisions to the New York Human Rights Law may soon change the whole equation. According to the National Law Review, the new bill recently cleared the legislature. The governor is expected to sign it into law, and victims of workplace harassment should then find it much easier to seek justice.

A new standard for New York discrimination cases

The new bill would make several important changes to existing law. One of the most important is the new threshold for illegal discrimination. For years, New York and federal laws have banned discrimination in the workplace, but they placed a difficult burden on victims. You had to show that the discrimination created a hostile work environment. That meant meeting two standards:

  • The discrimination targeted a protected characteristic, such as race, gender, age or religion
  • The behaviors were "severe and pervasive enough that a reasonable person would find [the environment] hostile"

This second standard has long proven a stumbling block in different courts. States and districts across the nation interpret it differently. Some victims have lost cases even after showing photographic evidence and giving the courts long lists of documented incidents. As a result, other victims may have chosen to stay silent, unsure they could meet the standard. But if the governor signs the new changes into law, victims will find it much easier to argue their cases for two reasons:

  • There's no need to compare your treatment to anyone else's
  • The burden of proof shifts largely to the employer, who must show that the behaviors don't rise above the level of "petty slights or trivial inconveniences"

Notably, this wouldn't just be the new standard for sexual harassment. It would be the standard for all discrimination cases, including those based on race, age, gender or religion.

An affirmation of employee rights

The bill is a big step in the right direction. Its changes go beyond the new standard for harassment. It removes some common defenses of bad behaviors, protects more New Yorkers and gives people more time to file their claims. All told, the bill is a strong affirmation of your right to enjoy a workplace free from illegal discrimination.

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