10 Sweeping Reforms for Women’s Equality

Noting that only passing nine points of women’s equality is not enough, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Assemblywoman Michele Titus today announced Assembly passage of the 10-point Women’s Equality Act. The legislation (A.8070) addresses the comprehensive proposal outlined by Governor Andrew Cuomo that would take significant steps in ending the many discriminatory practices and obstacles facing women in New York, including pay inequity, sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, human trafficking, domestic violence and family status discrimination. The bill would also reaffirm a woman’s freedom to choose.

“In 2013, passing nine points of equality is an affront to the Assembly’s dedicated fight for full women’s equality,” said Silver. “The Assembly has worked tirelessly to ensure that women’s equality in all aspects is not merely a goal but a common-place, everyday occurrence. I commend my Assembly colleagues for their hard work in ensuring our state remains a leader in the fight to break down barriers, end discriminatory practices against women and pass a strong 10-point agenda that truly benefits all women in New York.”

“Every aspect of a woman’s life is affected by the current state of inequality in our society. A woman that makes less at work is less capable of affording quality health services or may be denied housing because she’s on public assistance,” said Titus. “A woman who faces little protection from domestic abuse may still be evicted from her home. Every disparity is connected, and we will be doing nothing but a disservice to women in New York unless we achieve full equality, which is why today we are passing all 10 points of the Women’s Equality Act.”

Secure Pay Equity

The Act includes multiple pay equity provisions to ensure that women are being paid equal pay for equal work, including a modification of the terms and conditions in which an employer can pay different wages to different employees. The adjustment would clearly state that an employer cannot determine one’s wages on a sex-based differential and the determination must be related to the duties and requirements of the job and should be consistent with business necessity.

Additional provisions to ensure women are being paid for the wages they deserve include:

  • an expansion of the “same establishment clause” in the current law, which prohibits employers from paying employees of the opposite sex a different rate for equal work in the same establishment, to include all workplaces located in a geographical region, no larger than a county, taking into account population distribution, economic activity, and/or the presence of municipalities;
  • prevention of an employer from prohibiting an employee from inquiring about, discussing or disclosing wages;
  • increased liquidated damages in equal pay cases where the employee prevails from 100 percent to 300 percent of the total amount of the wages due; and
  • requirements that the Department of Labor and Division of Human Rights make training available to assist employers in developing training, policies and procedures to address discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Assemblyman Carl Heastie said, “All New Yorkers should receive equal pay for equal work, but currently women earn only 84 percent of what their male counterparts earn. In 2013, there is no reason for this type of injustice. Pay equity is a right that all people deserve. The Assembly has long stood by this belief, and today we are one step closer to finally making it a reality.”

Bev Neufeld, Director of the New York City Equal Pay Coalition said, “For over 20 years advocates have teamed together to reform NY’s equal pay laws, and for 10 years the Assembly passed bills to do just that with the Speaker’s encouragement and the hard work of our champions. We especially thank Assembly members Jaffe, Rosenthal, Nolan, Wright, Lifton, Heastie and former member Susan John for carrying that torch so many times. Their efforts, and the force of our larger coalition of 850 groups, brought us to this momentous vote today affirming the belief that what is good for economic and physical health of women is good for New York.”

Stop Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

In New York, women who work for employers with fewer than four employees cannot file sexual harassment complaints as those employers are currently exempt from the harassment law. This is significant when one considers that these businesses account for 60 percent of the employers in the state. A measure in the Women’s Equality Act enacts a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and would ban sexual harassment in all workplaces.

Remove Barriers and End Discrimination

While housing discrimination based on familial status is currently illegal, employment discrimination is not, meaning that many women in New York are often passed over for jobs or promotions if they have children or are planning to have children. Today’s legislation would make employment discrimination against women who have children illegal. The provision would also protect against familial-status discrimination in labor organizations, employment agencies and volunteer fire companies.

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell said, “As legislators we are afforded the unique opportunity to make New York a better place for women and for all New Yorkers by enacting laws that promote fair and equal treatment. The Women’s Equality Act includes key initiatives that would finally put an end to discrimination at all levels, whether it’s on the job or in the community. A woman should be able to raise a family without having to worry about the security of her job or the ability to afford safe and decent housing just because she is a mother.”

Additionally, the Act would provide that employers must make a reasonable accommodation for a pregnancy-related condition, which is a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth. The woman only needs to provide a note from her doctor or medical practitioner, if requested by her employer, in order to receive the reasonable accommodation.

The legislation also establishes a task force to study the impact of source of income discrimination on one’s accessibility to housing, including any sex-based discrimination. The task force would review the state’s current Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Administrative Plan and make recommendations to increase the participation of landlords and property owners.

Under current state law, a landlord can discriminate against a tenant if he or she doesn’t approve of the applicant’s source of income. This poses a problem for the vast majority of female-headed households on public assistance. Measures contained in today’s initiative would prohibit discrimination in housing based on lawful source of income.

Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick said, “It is appalling that women are still treated like second-class citizens under so many different circumstances. By passing the Women’s Equality Act, we are shattering pre-conceived, unjustifiable notions that women cannot be homeowners, career-women, wives, mothers and advocates in their community all once. We are saying once and for all that society must place a woman at the same level as a man in all aspects of life. This is a society that will be an example to the world.”

When it comes to sex-based discrimination, current state law authorizes the award of attorney’s fees in cases involving housing and housing credit discrimination. Included in today’s act is an initiative that would award attorney’s fees to a prevailing complainant in cases of employment or credit discrimination when that discrimination is sex-based. Payment of attorney’s fees would be awarded at the discretion of the commissioner of the Division of Human Rights or the court in which the discrimination case is heard. A prevailing defendant or respondent would only be able to recover attorney’s fees upon a showing that the action or proceeding was frivolous.

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said, “Payment of attorney fees in cases of employment or credit discrimination on the basis of sex will not only ease the financial burden many victims face, it will also help stop discrimination in the first place by making employers and creditors aware that there are definite repercussions for their actions.”

Protect Domestic Violence Victims

While domestic violence is a pervasive issue that transcends race, religion and socioeconomic status, it is a matter that disproportionately affects women, with one in four women experiencing intimate partner violence in their lifetime. To address this, the Women’s Equality Act would protect victims of domestic violence against discriminatory practices when they attempt to rent or lease housing.

Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee said, “Time after time, we hear stories of women who have been domestically abused and then to make matters worse, face serious forms of housing discrimination. The fact remains that victims of domestic violence are often discriminated against at a time when they are struggling for survival. Today we have taken a step toward removing an unjust obstacle these courageous survivors often experience as they begin putting their lives back together.”

Additionally, the Act would clarify that victims of domestic violence cannot be prosecuted for violating orders of protection issued in their favor and would also clearly state that only the court can modify or terminate an order of protection.

To allow victims of domestic violence greater accessibility to orders of protection, the Women’s Equality Act would also establish a pilot program to allow them to electronically file petitions for an ex parte temporary order of protection and for the issuance of such orders by audio-visual means. This program would be made available to domestic violence victims for whom travelling to or appearing at the courthouse would be an undue hardship or would create a risk of harm.

Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein said, “This legislation builds upon protections for victims of domestic violence that I and the Assembly have championed over the past two decades. The legislation approved today as part of the Women’s Equality Act will provide domestic violence victims the protection needed to end the vicious cycle of abuse – it will help address gaps in state law that have unnecessarily made the recovery process more difficult for victims.”

Strengthen Human Trafficking Laws

While there are comprehensive laws in place that address human trafficking, thousands of young girls and women still fall victim to sex and labor traffickers each year. The Women’s Equality Act includes multiple initiatives that will hold sex and labor traffickers accountable for their crimes and strengthen trafficking prosecutions in the state.

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin said, “Every day thousands of vulnerable women and children are trafficked and horrifically exploited, and instead of being protected, these victims are often treated as criminals. We must do everything in our power as legislators to make sure that sex and labor traffickers pay for their crimes and that the victims of such terrible acts are protected, supported and able to move forward with their lives.”

By creating the “Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act,” the legislation strengthens New York’s existing human trafficking laws by:

  • increasing the penalties for sex and labor human trafficking;
  • escalating penalties for promoting prostitution and patronizing minors for prostitution;
  • extending the inter-agency task force on human trafficking;
  • requiring human-trafficking training for law enforcement;
  • creating a civil right of action for victims of human trafficking to sue their perpetrators in civil court for damages; and
  • establishing an affirmative defense in prostitution prosecutions if the defendant was herself a sex-trafficking victim.

Additionally, the Women’s Equality Act expand opportunities for victims of human trafficking to be referred for services by allowing certain providers to directly refer trafficking victims to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance and the Department of Criminal Justice Services for human trafficking-related services.

Mario Cilento, President of the New York State AFL-CIO said, “As they have done consistently over the years, not just for women, but for all New Yorkers, Speaker Silver and the Assembly Majority are leading the way once again in the fight for equality in our state. From strengthening pay equity to providing reasonable accommodations for pregnant women to ending various forms of discrimination and harassment, this bill advances worker protections that the Labor Movement has fought for decades to achieve, and brings us one step closer to true equality in the workplace.”

New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said, “There’s one chamber of the state legislature that we have been able to count on to stand with women, for fairness, for equality, dignity and autonomy – that’s the New York State Assembly. The Assembly made history today by supporting the entire Women’s Equality Act. Thank you to Speaker Silver and to all of the Assemblymembers who stood up for all women today. These leaders know that true equality demands greater protections for women in all areas of life – in their homes, on the job and in the doctor’s office.”

Ensure Women Have the Freedom to Choose in New York

New York was a leader of women’s reproductive rights in the 1970s and passed abortion rights prior to the transformational Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision, leaving the state’s current law outdated several decades later. The Women’s Equality Act would codify existing federal law to protect a woman’s right to obtain an abortion prior to 24 weeks, or when necessary to protect her life or health.

NARAL Pro-Choice New York President Andrea Miller said, “This is a momentous day that exhibits for New York and for the nation what true leadership – and true representative democracy – looks like. The Assembly reinforced a core value for New Yorkers: that we cannot have full equality without reproductive rights. The Senate now has the opportunity to take this bill up immediately. They should follow the Assembly’s lead, represent the true wishes of New Yorkers, and vote on the 10-point Women’s Equality Act.”

Family Planning Advocates President and CEO M. Tracey Brooks said, “With passage of the Women’s Equality Act, Assembly Speaker Silver and members of the Assembly demonstrated, once again, that protecting women’s access to health care is not just a popular position to espouse. It is a constant commitment to establishing public policy that protects women and families. The New York State Assembly has a proud, decades-long legacy of doing just that.”

Dina Bakst, Co-Founder & Co-President of A Better Balance said, “In passing all ten points of the Women’s Equality Act (WEA) today, the Assembly has achieved an historic accomplishment for working women. The WEA puts teeth back into our state equal pay law and strengthens legal protections for pregnant women and mothers. These are vital measures which will help close the wage gap and promote equality and opportunity for the women of New York State, bolstering our economy and making New York a leader for the nation.”