Amid #MeToo, New York Employers Face Strict New Sexual Harassment Laws In response to the transformation of views on sexual harassment, New York state and New York City passed laws requiring training of all workers. Now, business owners are scrambling to comply.
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Amid #MeToo, New York Employers Face Strict New Sexual Harassment Laws

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Amid #MeToo, New York Employers Face Strict New Sexual Harassment Laws

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Amid #MeToo, New York Employers Face Strict New Sexual Harassment Laws

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's been a little more than a year since The New York Times ran an expose alleging sexual misconduct by Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein. Those allegations inspired other women to speak out, which in turn led to the downfall of many leaders in business and in the media, including here at NPR. The string of high-profile allegations and the #MeToo movement that came out of it transformed workplace culture, and it led New York State and New York City to pass the country's most stringent workplace sexual harassment laws. The key provisions take effect today, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Both the city and state regulations require every employer to conduct annual training aimed at preventing sexual harassment. They must also post their policies in highly visible places, and the rules apply to all employers, regardless of size. All this comes as news to Peter Shelsky, co-owner of Shelsky's Deli in Brooklyn.

PETER SHELSKY: I haven't heard about it until you came calling.

NOGUCHI: Shelsky has six employees and says sexual harassment has never been an issue, nor would it be tolerated. But, he says...

SHELSKY: We never really had a policy or arrangement written down.

NOGUCHI: Now that it's on his radar, he says, he'll comply.

SHELSKY: You know, it's one more bureaucratic hurdle. It's nothing that we're not used to. It's certainly for a worthy cause, of course.

NOGUCHI: Frank Cania is a Rochester-based human resources consultant whose clients are small businesses. He says even those who are aware of the new laws are scrambling.

FRANK CANIA: I'm really trying to think of a part of it that they're not struggling with at this point.

NOGUCHI: Cania estimates over half of the state's small firms likely aren't aware they're subject to these rules. To be effective, he says prevention training can't be a simple check-the-box exercise. The New York law requires more than just sitting employees in front of an online video.

CANIA: The training has to somehow accommodate questions, include a live trainer made available during the training session to answer those questions. And then it requires feedback from employees about the training and the materials presented.

NOGUCHI: Many small businesses may lack the resources to pull this off. Employers large enough to have a human resources person usually have policies and procedures already on the books, but even there, Cania says, companies could easily run afoul of the rules.

CANIA: Say you're an employer outside of New York State. You have an employee who comes into New York even for just one day, that employee needs to be trained, as well.

NOGUCHI: Jason Habinsky is a New York attorney helping his employer clients understand labor laws. He says the last year has shifted how employers think about sexual harassment.

JASON HABINSKY: It certainly has changed the landscape.

NOGUCHI: He says the high-profile cases have highlighted the business risks for employers, the willingness of workers to talk about it openly and the potential liability of not properly handling workplace complaints.

HABINSKY: You want to have training that goes well beyond sexual harassment. You want it to cover discrimination and harassment based upon any protected category, not just sexual harassment.

NOGUCHI: The law does not require the state to monitor for compliance or for businesses to show that they've completed the employee training. But, Habinsky says, that does not mean employers won't face consequences if they don't follow through.

HABINSKY: If they don't, the state can certainly audit them or investigate them. And very often the way that happens is if an employer is not doing this, an employee can report it. This is something that is very public, that is on people's minds, that people are going to read about and people are going to do something about.

NOGUCHI: Under the new laws, existing employees in New York State must undergo training by October of next year. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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