It has been about a year since the #MeToo movement went viral, spreading greater awareness about sexual misconduct and harassment, and, more generally, the role of women, in the workplace. So, where are we now, and has anything changed? Was it just an awareness movement? Or, have things actually started to shift in the legal landscape with respect to the way employers are required to handle sexual misconduct and harassment? And what about with the way women are represented at work? Even if #MeToo may have started out as an awareness movement, states like New York and California are implementing changes in the law that are now imposing, or will soon impose, new requirements on employers, in hopes of giving #MeToo a significant, lasting effect. So, what should employers in New York and California do now? And, given that these states are often at the forefront of labor and employment issues, how should employers outside New York and California prepare in case new laws are passed in their states?
New York’s New Anti-Sexual Harassment Laws
On April 12, 2018, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the 2019 New York State Budget, updating the state’s sexual harassment laws. Among other changes, there are two key components under these laws. First, every employer in New York must establish a sexual harassment prevention policy. These policies should have already been adopted and provided to all employees by October 9, 2018. The New York Department of Labor and New York Division of Human Rights have established a model sexual harassment prevention policy for employers to adopt. But employers are not required to use this model, so long as their policy meets or exceeds the minimum standards of the model and set forth in the laws. Employers must distribute the policy to all employees in writing or electronically, and must ensure that all future employees receive the policy before they start work. Additionally, employers are encouraged to post a copy where employees can easily access it.
Second, every employer in New York is required to provide employees with sexual harassment prevention training. Again, the New York Department of Labor and New York Division of Human Rights have developed model training for employers to use. Though employers are not required to use the model, they must ensure that their training program meets or exceeds the minimum standards of the model, and includes the specific minimum requirements set forth in the laws. All employers are required to train current employees by October 9, 2019, and new employees should be trained as quickly as possible upon hire. In addition, all employees must complete the training at least once per year. There is no certification requirement for trainers, and employers may use third-party vendors to deliver the training.
Importantly, employers in New York should also be mindful of the mandatory arbitration and nondisclosure agreement prohibitions that went into effect this summer, on July 11, 2018. Under New York’s new anti-sexual harassment laws, a contract cannot contain any clause that requires mandatory arbitration to resolve sexual harassment claims. Unless one of the limited exceptions applies, such clauses will become null and void. Furthermore, with respect to nondisclosure agreements, the new laws have established a three-step process for memorializing the complainant’s preference for entering such an agreement. Under the new laws, a nondisclosure agreement is defined to include any resolution of any claim involving sexual harassment that would prevent the person who complained from disclosing the underlying facts and circumstances of the harassment. While the new laws generally ban such nondisclosure agreements, they are not prohibited where a complainant expresses a preference for entering into one.
Where the complainant asks for a nondisclosure agreement, the following process must be observed:
- The term or condition must be provided to all parties, and the complainant must be given 21 days to consider it.
- If, after 21 days, the term or condition is the preference of the complainant, the preference must be memorialized in an agreement signed by all parties.
- The complainant has seven days to revoke the agreement, and the agreement cannot become final until after the revocation period has ended.
Importantly, this process requires the execution of two documents: (1) the agreement memorializing the complainant’s preference; and (2) the document(s) incorporating the preferred term or condition agreed upon. Suffice it to say, through policies, training, and contract clauses, the legal landscape has changed for employers in New York, and the effect of #MeToo and increased awareness of this issue are apparent.
New Anti-Sexual Harassment Laws in California
Similarly, in California, employers are also adjusting to new sexual harassment laws. For example, by January 1, 2020, employers with at least five employees must provide: (1) at least two hours of sexual harassment prevention training to all supervisory employees; and (2) at least one hour of sexual harassment prevention training to all non-supervisory employees. Training must be conducted within six months of the employee starting the position, and must be provided once every two years thereafter. Additionally, California has enacted a law regulating provisions set forth in settlement agreements related to sexual harassment, including nondisclosure clauses. Among other things, the new law prohibits a provision that prevents the disclosure of factual information underlying the allegation of sexual harassment upon which a settlement agreement is based. Such provisions entered on or after January 1, 2019, will become void as a matter of law and as counter to public policy.
But perhaps the most significant change has had less to do directly with sexual misconduct and harassment, and more to do with empowering women in the workplace. California has become the first state to require publicly traded companies to include women on their boards of directors. Signed by California Governor Jerry Brown on September 30, 2018, California Senate Bill 826 requires there to be at least one female director on the board of each California-based public corporation by the end of 2019. Also, depending on the number of board seats, companies may be required to have up to three female directors by the end of 2021. Companies are required to report their board composition to the California Secretary of State, and may be fined $100,000 for a first violation, and $300,000 for subsequent violations. Though not as directly linked to sexual harassment as the other laws discussed above, it will be interesting to see how an increase in the number of women on boards of directors in California will change things – at the state and national levels.
Thus, a year after the #MeToo movement went viral, we are seeing the movement change from something that caused greater awareness of an issue, to something that is being acted upon by way of law. Legal obligations are changing, and employers must be extra diligent to ensure compliance. As such, employers are advised to keep a pulse on current or proposed anti-sexual harassment and related laws and the extent to which their current policies and practices may be affected. Legal changes in California and New York tend to create models for other states, some of which may already have their own anti-sexual harassment laws in the works. Furthermore, employers in New York and California should update their sexual harassment policies and training programs accordingly, and make sure to distribute the policies and implement the programs as required. They should also develop a strategy to incorporate any changes that may affect contract provisions, such as nondisclosure and mandatory arbitration clauses. And, at least in California, publicly traded companies should start thinking about who will fill those female board director seats. While there are numerous other requirements pertaining to sexual misconduct and harassment that employers must be mindful of, states like New York and California have certainly begun to give the #MeToo movement a more significant and sustained impact.