JOE ROBACH AND SENATE ACT ON WOMEN’S EQUALITY PACKAGE

In its first legislative act of 2015, the New York State Senate and Joe Robach acted on a comprehensive Women’s Equality Agenda that would enhance the rights of women and protect those who are most vulnerable to abuse and discrimination. These historic women’s measures are a top priority of the Senate Coalition and were voted on the first day the Senate begins voting on legislation this session.

The comprehensive package of eight bills would: stop human trafficking; ensure equal pay for equal work; combat sexual harassment in the workplace; end gender discrimination in employment, housing and credit decisions; make reasonable work accommodations available for pregnant women; and provide stronger protections for domestic violence victims.

The eight bills comprising the Senate’s Women’s Equality Agenda were passed in 2013 and 2014 but were not acted upon by the Assembly. The measures include:

THE TRAFFICKING VICTIMS PROTECTION AND JUSTICE ACT

The Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act (S.7), sponsored by Senator Andrew Lanza (R, Staten Island), toughens penalties against those who buy and sell young women, men, and children and reduces the stigma defendants may face when they are victims of the massive $32 billion sex trafficking industry.

Key provisions of the measure include increasing the accountability of traffickers and buyers by raising the penalty for sex trafficking to a class B violent felony; creating the felony sex offense of “aggravated patronizing a minor”; and aligning the penalties for patronizing a minor with those of statutory rape.

The bill will also strengthen the investigative tools used to build a case against traffickers. Sex trafficking will be an affirmative defense to prostitution and the term “prostitute” will be eliminated from the Penal Law, as that term stigmatizes defendants who are in fact victims of sex trafficking. Nowhere else in the state’s Penal Law are individuals identified by the crime they allegedly committed.

Senator Andrew Lanza said, “Here in New York, thousands of innocent people are bought and sold like property each year. Human trafficking, a modern version of the slave trade, is a devastating human rights violation occurring in our own backyards. I’m proud to have authored the long-awaited Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act (TVPJA) to enhance protections for trafficking victims and hold those who exploit them accountable. I thank Senator Skelos, Assemblywoman Paulin, and the many advocates who are helping make this possible.”

ENSURING EQUAL PAY

Despite existing protections under the law, women in New York earn 84 percent of what men earn and jobs traditionally held by women pay significantly less than jobs predominately employing men. In New York, on average, a woman working full time is paid $42,113 per year, while a man working full time is paid $50,388 per year. This creates a wage gap of $8,275 between full-time working men and women in the state.

The Senate will take up S.1, sponsored by Senator Diane Savino, to help women receive the wages they are entitled to by prohibiting employers from paying employees disparate amounts due to gender.

STOPPING DISCRIMINATION BASED ON FAMILY STATUS

Legislation (S.4) sponsored by Senator Betty Little would help working mothers by preventing discrimination in the hiring and promotion of people with families. Employers would be prohibited from denying work or promotions based on family status, such as parents and women who are pregnant. Existing law only prohibits discrimination based on family status in credit and housing, but not employment — which can have a negative impact on women with children.
ENDING PREGNANCY DISCRIMINATION IN THE WORKPLACE

To help protect pregnant women, the bill (S.8) sponsored by Senator Kemp Hannon (R, Nassau) would require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with pregnancy-related medical conditions. A pregnancy-related condition would be treated as a temporary disability and employers would be required to perform a reasonable accommodation analysis for employees with conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth.

PREVENTING HOUSING DISCRIMINATION AGAINST DOMESTIC VIOLENCE VICTIMS

Discrimination against victims of domestic violence is almost always discrimination against women. Eighty-five percent of domestic violence victims are women; 1.3 million women are victims of assault by an intimate partner each year. Many of these victims are forced to stay with or return to their abusive partners because of a lack of available housing or when they are refused housing.

Bill S.5, sponsored by Senator Joe Robach, would make it illegal to discriminate against domestic violence victims and provides the victims with the option of a civil action if discrimination occurs.

Senator Joe Robach said, “When it comes to combating domestic violence it is critically important that victims are able to find housing for themselves and their families to escape the eminent danger they have endured. This legislation will end discrimination in the housing marketplace and give domestic violence victims the protections they need from their abuser.”

PROHIBITING SEXUAL HARASSMENT

Sexual harassment disproportionately affects women in the workplace. In 2011, women filed 75 percent of all sexual harassment complaints with the New York State Division of Human Rights and 83 percent of all sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The legislation (S.2), sponsored by Senator David Valesky (D, Oneida), would protect workers from sexual harassment regardless of the size of the workplace. Under current law, people working at businesses with fewer than four employees cannot file a harassment complaint with the state because small employers are exempt from the law that prohibits harassment. More than 60 percent of the state’s private employers have fewer than four employees. This bill would ensure that all employees are protected from sexual harassment by applying existing protections to businesses of all sizes.

REMOVING BARRIERS TO REMEDYING DISCRIMINATION

A bill (S.3) sponsored by Senator Betty Little would remove barriers to remedying discrimination by allowing for reasonable attorney’s fees in employment and credit discrimination cases when sex is a basis of discrimination.

Under existing law, attorney’s fees for sex discrimination cases involving employment, credit, and lending are not available even after the plaintiff proves discrimination at trial. As a result, many who are discriminated against and cannot afford to hire an attorney never seek redress. Also, those who hire an attorney on a contingency fee arrangement are not “made whole” for their losses because they must pay for their attorneys out of their recovery. Some who cannot afford to hire an attorney, but who try to do so on a contingency basis, are unsuccessful because the case is either too small or too risky.

ALLOWING ELECTRONIC FILING FOR ORDERS OF PROTECTION

Domestic violence legislation (S.6), sponsored by Senator Catharine Young, would allow victims to electronically file for orders of protection. The measure creates a pilot program to allow domestic violence victims to seek temporary orders of protection through electronic means rather than having to appear in person. It also requires the Office of Court Administration to review and update its policies and services to make sure the services available to all crime victims are adequate and appropriate.

Upon passage, the bills will be sent to the Assembly.

Legislation originally part of the Senate’s Women’s Equality Agenda was enacted into law in 2013 that strengthened orders of protection for domestic violence victims. It clarifies that a victim for whom an order of protection is issued cannot be arrested for violating that same order; (S5605, Chapter 480 Laws of 2013, Senator Joe Robach.