Businesses likely recall the 2018 and 2019 updates to the New York Human Rights Law (“HRL”), the State’s primary workplace anti-harassment and anti-discrimination law. A trio of legislative bills signed into law yesterday  (March 16, 2022) by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul once again adds to employers’ obligations and cautions with respect to workplace harassment.

New Hotline for Reporting Sexual Harassment

The New York State Division of Human Rights will establish a “toll free confidential hotline” to assist individuals with complaints of workplace sexual harassment. The hotline will be open during regular business hours and will be staffed by pro bono attorneys “experienced in providing counsel related to sexual harassment.”

The law also directs the Division to work with the state Department of Labor (“DOL”) to “ensure that information on the hotline is included in any materials employers post or provide to employees regarding sexual harassment.” Accordingly, employers should expect an update to the Division and DOL’s model sexual harassment prevention materials.  

The law takes effect on July 14, 2022.

Prohibition on Releasing Personnel Files of Employees

Effective immediately, employers are prohibited from disclosing an employee’s personnel records in retaliation for the employee making a complaint of discrimination or harassment. The law is intended to stop employers from discrediting employees who report discrimination or harassment. Notably though, employers are still free to use employees’ personnel records in the typical legal process of defending against a discrimination complaint or other action.

Employees who believe their records were leaked in retaliation may sue under the new law, or, file a complaint with the New York State Attorney General’s office.

State and Municipalities Designated as “Employers” of Staffers Serving Under an Elected Official

Also effective immediately, the HRL has been amended to explicitly cover employees working for a state or municipality’s executive, judiciary, or legislative branches. The amendment achieves this by modifying the HRL’s definition of “employer” by designating the state or relevant municipality as the employer of all workers serving in government, and specifically includes staffers working for elected officials. The law is primarily aimed at ensuring staffers of elected officials have viable legal recourse when complaining of discrimination or harassment. Municipalities should note that they will take on the role of the liable “employer” in the event an elected official is alleged to have committed harassment or discrimination.

If you have any questions, please contact the Harris Beach attorney with whom you usually work.

This alert does not purport to be a substitute for advice of counsel on specific matters.

Harris Beach has offices throughout New York State, including Albany, Buffalo, Ithaca, Long Island, New York City, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse and White Plains, as well as Washington, D.C., New Haven, Connecticut and Newark, New Jersey.