Advancing Pay Equality for New York’s Working Women

For women of New York, it’s about to get much easier to bring gender discrimination cases.

A ten-point bill called the Women’s Equality Act had been languishing in the New York State Senate for nearly two years because of controversy over a plank that would have shored up abortion rights.  But in March, Democrats in the New York State Assembly and women’s rights groups agreed to separate out the reproductive health provisions to try to get a deal done on the rest of the bill.  Now, two stand-alone bills designed to crack down on employment discrimination against women (A.6075 and A. 7189) have cleared both the State Senate and Assembly and are awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature.

Here’s how the bills will protect New York’s working women.

First, A. 6075 limits the excuses an employer can use to pay women less than men.  The law on the books today allows employers to pay women less than men if the pay difference is based on a “factor other than sex.”  The bill limits this loophole and requires that any pay difference must be based on a legitimate, job-related factor, like education, training, or experience.  In addition, employers will no longer be allowed to justify paying women less by pointing to factors that seem neutral but actually are derived from sex-linked differentials, like prior salary histories.  This will call into question “salary matching” policies that perpetuate market-based pay disparities.

Second, A. 6075 ramps up the compensation available for individuals who win gender discrimination lawsuits.  It triples the penalties – known as “liquidated damages” – that courts can impose on employers who intentionally pay women less than men.  With this change, women who prove intentional discrimination will not only get collect their unpaid wages, but they can also get liquidated damages of up to three times the amount of their unpaid wages.

Third, A. 6075 cracks down on workplace wage secrecy policies, which prevent women from finding out that they’re being compensated unfairly.   In a recent survey, 62% of women in private sector jobs reported that discussing pay information is prohibited, discouraged, or could result in discipline.  Under the new bill, employers will not be able to prohibit employees from inquiring about, discussing, or disclosing employee wages.

Fourth, the other bill, A. 7189, will allow plaintiffs in successful gender discrimination cases to recover their reasonable attorney’s fees.  This is crucial to ensure that victims of discrimination are truly “made whole” – because any financial recovery they take home will no longer be reduced by the amount of attorney’s fees they have to pay.   Until now, New York has been one of only nine states that don’t award attorney’s fees to litigants who win discrimination cases.

Progress in closing the wage gap between men and women, it is widely reported, has stagnated for more than a decade.  But once these bills become law, perhaps women will recover some momentum in the move towards wage equality.  Governor Cuomo, it’s time to sign these bills into law.

Alexandra Harwin

Ali Harwin has been working on protecting the rights of women for her entire career, most recently in the NY office of Sanford Heisler, LLP. Before focusing on employment discrimination matters, Ali worked in family law and in economic policy research. Ali loves to write, and loves even more her husband and her child and the attendant adventures in egalitarian parenting that come with that love.

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