Honoring the Assembly Majority's steadfast commitment to the women and children of New York, Speaker Sheldon Silver, along with the Democratic Women Assembly Members, today announced the passage of the Women's Equality Act. The legislation (A.8070), also passed in 2013, moves to end the discrimination and eliminate obstacles facing women. In addition to addressing pay inequity, sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, human trafficking, domestic violence and family status discrimination, the bill reaffirms a woman's right to control her own personal and private reproductive health decisions.
"Last year, despite our best efforts, the women of this state were denied their right to full equality under the law. We in the Assembly, led by the Democratic Women Assembly Members, lived up to our promise to shield women from the scourge of domestic violence, to protect and defend a woman's right to choose and to erase gender inequality in our state by passing the entire Women's Equality Act," said Silver. "The Assembly Majority has once again demonstrated its resolve and today passed the Women's Equality Act. From this point forward, we will work together with Governor Cuomo and with the advocates to hold accountable those elected officeholders who stand in the way of achieving our goal of full equality."
"I am proud to sponsor this critical legislation that will ensure that women in New York get paid the same amount as a man for the same job; that women are shielded from harassment in the workplace; and that women have the right to be full and equal participants in society," said Titus. "It is our responsibility as legislators to bring our daughters, our sisters and our mothers closer to a society free of injustice and discrimination."
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.
Assemblymember Carl Heastie said, "In 2014, it is absurd that women earn 84 cents of what their male colleagues earn. True women's equality will not be achieved until equal pay for equal work applies across the board, to everyone, regardless of whether they are a man or woman. The Assembly has long taken a stand to right this wrong, and by passing today's legislation we are reaffirming our commitment to making pay equity for all New Yorkers a reality."
Additional provisions to ensure women are being paid for the wages they deserve include:
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.
Assemblymember Addie Russell said, "Working mothers are an essential part of our economy and account for nearly 70 percent of the female workforce in the United States. Yet too often, women with children encounter discrimination and continue to be passed over for promotions. We cannot stand by and allow these practices from a bygone era to be tolerated any longer. The time to act is now. Outlawing discrimination based on familial status makes our state and its workforce stronger and treats mothers with the respect they deserve."
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.
Assemblymember Aileen Gunther said, "As a woman who worked through her own pregnancies, I know how important and valuable a supporting, accommodating work environment is. Providing reasonable accommodations is good for the mother, the baby and the economy."
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.
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.
Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz said, "A victim of sex-based credit or employment discrimination has enough on their plate without having to worry about the additional burden of paying attorney's fees. Today's legislation not only helps remove some of the financial strain from what is often a long and arduous legal proceeding, it also offers definitive repercussions for employers or creditors that discriminate based on sex, hopefully deterring them from committing such an injustice in the first place."
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.
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.
Assemblymember Helene Weinstein said, "This legislation builds upon protections for victims of domestic violence that the Assembly has championed over the past two decades. The legislative package approved today 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.
By creating the "Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act," the legislation strengthens New York's existing human trafficking laws by:
Additionally, the Women's Equality Act expands 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.
Assemblymember Amy Paulin said, "Human trafficking is a heinous act that happens far too often and destroys the lives of countless victims. The women and children that fall victim to these crimes should receive treatment and protection, not criminal punishment. Today's measure strengthens penalties for sex and labor traffickers and increases access and options to help trafficking victims recover and move forward."
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.
Assemblymember Deborah Glick said, "Forty years after Roe v. Wade, many women still do not have full control over their bodies. This cowardly threat to a woman's freedom of choice prevents full equality from ever truly being realized. Well, here in New York this will not stand. The Women's Equality Act ensures that New York will remain a safe, progressive and empowering state, where a woman will always have full control over her reproductive health and her choices."
Assemblymember Ellen Jaffee said, "We must continue to fight to ensure equal protection under the law for all women. A woman does not have equal opportunities without the ability to protect her health and make her own reproductive health decisions. We must pass all ten points of the Women's Equality Act to ensure that women have equal rights in all aspects of their lives."