Westchester County Adopts Human Rights Law
Westchester County, located north of New York City and the site of the headquarters of many major companies, has adopted a Human Rights Law, expanding the legal protections afforded to employees and applicants for employment in the County, as well as in places of public accommodation, in the sale, lease or rental of real property, and in relation to credit.
The new Westchester County law is largely redundant, providing protection against discrimination on many of the same bases already forbidden by the various federal laws and by the New York State Human Rights Law, including race, color, religion or creed, age, national origin, alienage or citizenship status, gender, marital status, disability, and ethnicity. However, the new law extends the existing prohibitions on discrimination to include discrimination on the bases of sexual orientation and familial status, presently not covered by either state or federal laws.
The Westchester law also extends beyond existing state and federal discrimination laws in that it prohibits discrimination based on a person’s perceived group identity. For example, under current laws, an individual perceived to be a member of a particular protected class who is not actually such a member is generally not protected, since those laws require actual membership in the protected class (with the exception of “perceived disabilities,” which are covered, along with actual disabilities, by the Americans With Disabilities Act). Westchester’s law, however, will now provide protection to this larger class of people.
The Westchester law also specifically requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for the religious needs of a person who “regularly and customarily observes” a particular day as a holy day or the observance of any religious custom. It also allows a pregnant employee to request that her employer make reasonable accommodations to allow her to continue to work throughout her pregnancy.
The law authorizes the establishment of a Westchester County Human Rights Commission, to consist of fifteen unpaid members nominated by the County Executive and approved by the County Board of Legislators. The Commission will have the authority to accept and investigate complaints,to issue binding subpoenas, issue temporary injunctions or restraining orders, preside over mediation and conciliation proceedings, hold hearings, issue rulings as to allegations of unlawful discriminatory practices, and award both compensatory and punitive damages if a complaint is sustained. The Commission is expected to begin accepting complaints on July 1, 2000.
Since the Westchester County law is intended, in part, to reduce the caseload of the overburdened New York State Division of Human Rights (NYSDHR), any individual filing a complaint with the Westchester Commission must first waive and relinquish the right to file a complaint with NYSDHR.
Finally, the law also requires aggrieved employees to exhaust any procedures or remedies available to them as part of their employer’s equal employment opportunity policies prior to filing a complaint with the Westchester Commission. This requirement may be excused, however, if the Commission finds that the employer’s policies were not widely disseminated and known to the employees.