The NYC Human Rights Law: How It Works and Whom It Protects

If you ask a dozen New York City residents what makes New York great, you’ll hear a dozen different answers. NYC is considered unique for its diversity; for its opportunity; for its atmosphere; and for its history—but did you know that NYC has the bragging rights to the most comprehensive human rights protections in the country?

While many cities and states throughout the U.S. have some form of anti-discrimination law on the books, the New York City Human Rights Law is “one of the most powerful anti-discrimination laws in the country, far stronger than either federal law or most state counterparts.” It applies to anyone living within the city, and contains extensive human rights protections encompassing discrimination, retaliation, discriminatory harassment, and bias-based profiling by law enforcement.

As employment attorneys in New York City, we at the Law Office of Christopher Q. Davis regularly advocate for employees who have dealt with violations of the NYC Human Rights Law in their workplace. According to New York's Anti-Discrimination Center, the law’s emphasis is on maximizing accountability and on creating “a real deterrent to discriminatory conduct.” From experience, we know that the NYC Human Rights Law is a powerful tool not only for discouraging discrimination, but for fighting it once it occurs.

New York residents should know that the law prevents discrimination of individuals in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on the following characteristics:

• Race, color, or creed
• National origin or citizenship status
• Gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation
• Age
• Disability
• Pregnancy
• Marital or partnership status
Caregiver status (new protected class for employees as of May 4, 2016)

Caregiving employees—those who provide direct and ongoing care to a child or to a sick or disabled relative—are newly protected under New York law as of May 2016. Employers are not permitted to make employment decisions about an employee based on their caregiving status, including decisions about hiring, firing, or promotions. The NYC Human Rights Law also provides some additional anti-discrimination protections that are specific to employees, including discrimination based on unemployment status, arrest or conviction record, and an individual’s status as a victim of domestic violence, stalking, or sex offenses.

As an employee, sometimes it can be difficult to ascertain when an employer’s behavior crosses over from something permissible into something unlawful and discriminatory. Outlined here are some common examples of discrimination or discriminatory harassment that can affect each protected class. If any of these scenarios sound familiar to you, you may have been the victim of a violation of the NYC Human Rights Law—and these offenses by your employer are legally reprehensible.

Race or Color

• Your employer repeatedly makes jokes or offhand comments about people of your race
• Your employer unfairly applies stereotypes to you in designating job duties (e.g. “People of your race are good with technology!”)
• Your employer fires you, or refuses to hire you, because of your race or skin color (e.g. “We’ve hired people like you before, and it just didn’t work out.”)
• Your employer makes assumptions about you based on your appearance that affect your job (e.g. assumes you are Arab if you have darker skin, and makes discriminatory comments or refuses to hire you)
• Your employer inquires about your racial background during the hiring process in a way that suggests your answer is relevant to their decision (e.g. “Your skin color is interesting, what is your heritage?”)
• Your employer does not address incidences of racial harassment or discrimination perpetrated by your coworkers or the company’s other employees, even when you complain

Creed

• Your employer reduces your exposure to customers or adjusts your job duties because you wear clothing items related to your religion (e.g. a hijab, yarmulke, or turban)
• Your employer fires you, or refuses to hire you, because of your religion or religious dress (e.g. “You can’t work here if you refuse to take that off during work hours.”)
• Your employer fails to accommodate your religious needs in the workplace (e.g. requiring you to work on the Sabbath even though others are willing to trade shifts with you)
• Your employer reprimands you for expressing your religious beliefs at work (e.g. you are not allowed to display religious icons or symbols in your workspace, even when other types of personal items are allowed)
• Your employer makes discriminatory comments or harasses you because of your religion or lack thereof, and/or allows other employees to do the same without reprimand

National Origin or Citizenship Status

• Your employer makes hiring or job placement decisions about you based on your accent (e.g. “Sorry, I can’t have someone with an accent speaking to the customers.”)
• Your employer makes assumptions about you based on your national origin that affect your job (e.g. assumes you are Muslim if you are from the Middle East, and makes discriminatory comments or refuses to hire you)
• Your employer gives you a lesser salary because they assume that you are less qualified or willing to accept less money due to your national origin
• Your employer makes offensive comments or harasses you because you are a member of a specific ethnic group, or are otherwise affiliated with one (e.g. your husband is African)
• Your employer asks you not to wear clothing items that are a part of your religious or cultural identity (e.g. a sari, abaya, or robe)
• Your employer forbids you from speaking your native language at work (unless the employer can prove that an English-only rule is necessary for conducting business, and has made that rule clear to employees)
• Your employer treats you differently in any way due to your ancestry, the place you were born, your culture, your accent, or other linguistic characteristics
• Your employer asks if you are a citizen during the hiring process, and subsequently refuses to hire you if you are not, even if you have valid work documentation
• Your employer expresses that they would rather employ a U.S. citizen, or gives priority to citizens within the workplace

Gender

• Your employer pays you less than your male counterparts because you are a woman (see our blogs on the gender pay gap here and here)
• Your employer refuses to hire or promote you because you are a woman of childbearing age (e.g. asks you in interviews whether you’re married and/or planning to have children soon)
• Your employer passes you over for promotions or pay raises in favor of men, even though you are a more qualified employee (see our blog on "mommy-tracking" here)
• Your employer reprimands you for your choice of dress (e.g. tells you that wearing pants or other gender-neutral clothing is inappropriate or “not feminine enough”)
• Your employer sexually harasses you, makes patronizing comments, or makes you feel uncomfortable in any way because of your gender (e.g. repeatedly calls you “sweetheart” or compliments your appearance in an inappropriate manner)
• Your employer gives you a lesser benefits package compared to your male coworkers, under the assumption that the men are “principal wage earners” or “heads of household” with families to support

Gender Identity

• Your employer refuses to use your preferred pronouns, or does not reprimand your co-workers or other employees for doing the same, even when you complain
• Your employer fires you, or refuses to hire you, upon discovering that you plan to undergo a gender transition or sex reassignment surgery, or have previously done so
• Your employer reassigns you or limits your interaction with clients because he or she thinks that your gender expression is too “alternative” or “non-traditional” (e.g. “We’re concerned that your presence at the register will make customers uncomfortable.”)
• Your employer disciplines or fires you for wearing clothing that corresponds to your gender identity, usually with the excuse that you are not in compliance with the company’s dress code policy
• Your employer fires, demotes, or reprimands you when he or she discovers that you express your gender differently when you are outside of the workplace (e.g. “Hey, I saw photographs of you at a drag show last weekend. What were you thinking? Clients can’t see that.”)
• Your employer harasses you for your gender identity or expression, or repeatedly makes offensive jokes or offhand comments about your identity or appearance
• Your employer refuses you access to workplace restroom facilities, or denies you equal treatment in the workplace in any other way

Sexual Orientation

• Your employer fires you, refuses to hire you, demotes you, penalizes you, or otherwise treats you differently after discovering you are non-heterosexual or have a same-sex partner
• Your employer regularly comments on or makes offensive jokes about sexual orientation or same-sex marriage in the workplace, whether directed at you or in general, and/or allows other employees to carry on doing the same
• Your employer asks you to hide your sexual orientation in the workplace (e.g. by removing pictures of your same-sex partner from your cubicle, or by wearing clothing your employer deems more traditionally “masculine” or “feminine”)
• Your employer presses you for details about your relationships, mannerisms, or sexual activity, or otherwise makes inappropriate references to your personal life

Age

• Your employer fires you or refuses to hire you because they prefer someone “fresh-faced” or “energetic” to do the job instead
• Your employer changes your job duties or reduces your hours due to you “slowing down,” even if you haven’t asked for a break and your job performance has not dropped
• Your employer reduces your exposure to customers in favor of employees who are younger-looking (e.g. “Sharon is just a better face for the company—I’m sure you understand.”)
• Your employer fires you because your experience is costing the company too much money—they prefer to keep and hire younger workers who are paid less
• Your employer turns you down for a deserved promotion in favor of someone younger hired from the outside, saying that the company “needs new blood”
• Your employer has made critical remarks about your age, directly to you or to others in the company, that you suspect are driving decisions about your employment
• Your employer shows a pattern of laying off older workers while keeping on younger, less experienced employees
• Your employer has directly expressed concerns to you about your age affecting your ability to effectively do your job

Disability

• Your employer fires or refuses to hire you because you have a physical or mental disability, a perceived disability, or a close association with an individual who has a disability
• Your employer asks you about your past or current medical conditions during the hiring process, or requires you to take a medical exam
• Your employer refuses to grant you reasonable accommodations for your disability that would allow you to work (e.g. giving a diabetic worker scheduled breaks throughout the day to monitor blood sugar, or giving a sight-impaired employee a modified training manual)
• Your employer creates or maintains a workplace with substantial physical barriers that impede the movement of employees with physical disabilities (e.g. narrow hallways or an elevator that breaks down frequently)
• Your employer fires or demotes you if you become disabled at some point after you are initially hired, or refuses to give you time off to attend to your disability or a serious health condition that constitutes a temporary disability
• Your employer refuses to accommodate doctors’ appointments or scheduling changes that result from your disability (see our blogs on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) here and here for more information about disability accommodations)

Pregnancy

• Your employer asks whether you are pregnant during the hiring process, and refuses to hire you if you confirm your pregnancy or are visibly pregnant
• Your employer fires or demotes you upon learning that you are pregnant later on
• Your employer refuses to provide reasonable accommodations to you during your pregnancy, even when those accommodations are provided to other temporarily disabled employees (e.g. you are made to keep lifting heavy boxes at work)
• Your employer refuses to grant you insurance coverage for your female partner’s pregnancy-related conditions, while other employees’ male partners are given comprehensive coverage through the same plan
• Your employer refuses to grant you sufficient time off for doctors’ appointments, prenatal care, or the birth of your child
• Your employer refuses to provide you with your previous job or with a similar job upon your return from maternity leave (see our blogs on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) here and here for more information about pregnancy accommodations)

Marital or Partnership Status

• Your employer hires and/or promotes single employees over those who are engaged or married, for fear that they will become pregnant or be distracted by family responsibilities
• Your employer asks you questions about your marital status during the hiring process that suggest an attempt to find out your partner’s gender, age, and/or your likelihood of having children (e.g. “What is your spouse’s name?” “What does your partner do?” “How long have you been together?”)
• Your employer refuses to hire you, a single woman, to a primarily male company for fear that you will be “a distraction” in the office
• Your employer passes over you, a married woman, for company trips where you would be traveling with male employees, reasoning that you or your partner would be “uncomfortable” with it
• Your employer makes any type of employment decision based on the fact that you are married, unmarried, or married to a person of a certain demographic

Caregiver Status

• Your employer asks you whether you have children, and how many, during the hiring process, and refuses to hire you if you are presently a caregiver or intend to have children in the near future
• Your employer fires you or refuses to hire or promote you because you provide ongoing care to a child, including adopted or foster children (e.g. asking a potential employee “Whose responsibility are the children?”)
• Your employer fires you or refuses to hire or promote you because you provide ongoing care to a parent, sibling, spouse, child, grandchild, or grandparent with a disability (e.g. “We’re not sure you can handle this work while caring for your sick mother.”)
• Your employer retaliates against you for making reasonable requests for flexibility pertaining to your status as a caregiver (e.g. occasionally leaving early for children’s doctor appointments)
• Your employer reduces the work assigned to you, excludes you from larger projects, or assigns you more menial tasks based on the assumption that your caregiving responsibilities make you unreliable

While this list may seem exhaustive, the scenarios of workplace discrimination detailed here are only examples of what employees might encounter over the course of their careers. If you have any doubts about the legality of your employer’s behavior or about your treatment at work, call our office at (646) 430-7930, or fill out our contact form here for a free consultation—we can help you determine whether you’ve been a victim of unlawful discrimination.

Meanwhile, if any of the above scenarios sound familiar to you, you may have a case against your employer. Even if your complaint seems small, don’t hesitate to contact us: The New York City Human Rights Law is designed to protect New York employees from all forms of discrimination and discriminatory harassment, no matter how severe the violation might be. It’s the law’s job to promote justice, and it’s our firm’s job to enforce it.

Victims of workplace discrimination can recover remedies including back pay, reinstatement, hiring, promotion, and compensatory damages. Call the Law Office of Christopher Q. Davis today or contact us here to discuss your options free of charge.