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New Sexual Harassment Standards Surprise Many New York Employers

ROCHESTER, NY (WXXI) - Survivors of rape and workplace harassment are cheering New York state's sweeping changes to its sexual harassment laws. The state Legislature's action comes in the #MeToo era in which victims have taken a strong stand against sexual violence.

Among other things, the measures remove a long-standing provision that protected employers from liability if an employee failed to file a complaint or did not follow specific reporting procedures.

The change protects victims of workplace harassment who don't make a complaint because they feared retaliation.  The legislation also ends the requirement that the harassment is "severe or pervasive" in order for a victim's complaint to be heard.

"This was a last-minute surprise for a lot of employers," said Beth Cordello of the Legislature's action. Cordello is an attorney specializing in employment law at Pullano and Farrow, PLCC in Rochester.

She says it's not clear if the new law will lead to more lawsuits, but more of the claims that are filed will be successful.

"You no longer have to show actual physical sexual assault," she explained. “You no longer have to meet these high standards. Any kind of discrimination or harassment is illegal under New York state law and they sought to make that clear with these changes."

New York's standards for making harassment claims now surpass those required at the federal level and in many states. The new law says only claims that are "trivial or petty" would not be considered viable.  Cordello said it will be up to the New York State Division of Human Rights and the courts to define those terms.

"It's hard to say what wouldn't be considered actionable," she said. "We'll have to wait and see how this plays out."

The new law also extends the statute of limitations for sexual harassment. Claims can now be filed up to three years after an alleged incident, instead of the previous one-year window.

Cordello said employers will be working in the coming weeks to try to minimize their liability.  At a minimum, she said, they should be training managers and supervisors to be aware of the specifics of the law, "and take every complaint very seriously, even if it's verbal, even if it's in passing. These things should be addressed and not set aside."