Originally published in HuffPo
Over one hundred and fifty years ago, the women’s suffrage movement began in America at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Since then, New York has been at the forefront of important social and legal movements that have advanced the equal treatment of all people. Over the years, however, New York has fallen behind in its role as a progressive leader on women’s rights. The Women’s Equality Act, which I will introduce today, is designed to address gender inequality in our communities, and to restore New York as a leader in women’s rights.
Fact: in New York, women earn 84 percent of what men earn, and over a lifetime will earn $500,000 less than men. In 2013 this is both inexcusable and absurd. The Women’s Equality Act strengthens the law to ensure that women receive the wages they are entitled to, as well as provides for increased damages if a woman is not paid equally.
Fact: women with children are less likely to be recommended for hire and promoted. The Act prohibits employers from denying work or promotions for employees simply based on whether or not they have children, as well as clarifies the obligations that employers have in making reasonable accommodations for pregnant women. And to make sure women are “made whole” if they are discriminated against, the Act provides attorneys’ fees to women who prevail in employment discrimination cases where the discrimination was based on sex.
Fact: not all women in New York can file sexual harassment claims against their employers. Women file the vast majority of sexual harassment complaints, yet those women who work for employers with fewer than 4 employees cannot file complaints because those businesses, which account for 60 percent of employers in New York, are exempt from the harassment law. The Act adopts a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, and bans sexual harassment in all workplaces.
Fact: female-headed households in New York account for the vast majority of those on public assistance. However, under current law, a landlord can turn away a tenant if he does not approve of the applicant’s source of income. The Women’s Equality Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on lawful source of income, aiding women who receive public assistance in finding safe and decent housing for their families.
Fact: discrimination against victims of domestic violence is almost always discrimination against women. Of all victims of domestic violence, 85 percent are women, and about 1 in 4 women will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. A major problem for victims of domestic violence is that under current state law, they have no protection from discrimination in housing. The Women’s Equality Act fixes that. In addition, the Act strengthens the laws surrounding the issuance of orders of protection, requiring in-court translation of orders of protection as well as the development of a pilot program to allow victims of domestic violence to remotely petition for, and receive, temporary orders of protection.
Fact: protections for women and girls who fall victim to human trafficking can and should be strengthened. The Act builds on the State’s already comprehensive laws by increasing penalties for human trafficking to deter perpetrators, making prosecution and enforcement more effective, and providing an affirmative defense in prostitution prosecutions that a defendant’s participation was a result of having been a sex trafficking victim. These amendments will solidify New York’s status as a leader among the states in protecting vulnerable individuals subject to exploitation.
Fact: the Women’s Equality Act protects a woman’s right to choose as defined by the 1973 Supreme Court Ruling in Roe V. Wade. In 1970, New York was one of the first states to decriminalize abortion. Three years later, in Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court held that the United States Constitution protects the right of a woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy prior to fetal viability or throughout pregnancy when it is necessary to preserve her life or health. This has been the nation’s law established by the Supreme Court for the last 40 years.
The law in New York, however, was not amended after Roe, making it outdated and inconsistent with federal law. The Women’s Equality Act codifies in state law the reproductive rights afforded by Roe. At the same time, I support and respect religious freedom and therefore our bill does not change any existing state and federal laws that permit a health care provider from refraining from providing an abortion due to religious or moral beliefs.
Contrary to the opposition’s assertion, this language in no way expands abortion rights but only codifies federal law. This is important because the Supreme Court could change in compositions, or opinion, and New York works to protect women’s right to choose.
For too long New York’s laws have not properly protected women’s rights. These are significant problems, and big issues to tackle. But in New York, that’s what we have always done. And as long as I’m Governor, that’s what we will continue to do. Join me in supporting the Women’s Equality Act now, because another year is too long to wait.