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As Discrimination and Harassment Rise, NYC Promotes Its Human Rights Law

New York City's Commission on Human Rights saw a staggering 60 percent jump in discrimination and harassment complaints in 2016. In 2017, complaints are up an additional 30% so far this year. Of these complaints, approximately 40 percent are reports of discrimination or harassment based on a person's race, religion, national origin and immigration status. The Commission says it has nearly doubled its investigations into that category of complaints in the past two years.

  • Recent incidents reported to the Commission include:
  • A man yelling obscenities at a 7-11 employee and saying "You Muslim. Go back to your country. This is why Donald Trump is President."
  • A woman announced on a bus that she "hated Asians" and then hit another woman over the head with an umbrella.
  • A shopper speaking Spanish was told by a store employee to "Speak English; this is America" and was then left the store.

NYC Human Rights law.pngIn response, the city has launched an ad campaign to make residents aware of the protections they are afforded under the New York City Human Rights Law. The Commission has placed more than 2,000 placards on subways and will also run ads in newspapers and other media.

The ads each feature a prominent photo of an individual who is a visible minority making a statement about his or her rights. In one, for example, a Muslim woman says, "I should have the right to wear what my faith calls for, without being called a threat." In another, a man says, "I should have the right to get a job, without being denied because of my skin tone or name." The ads then advise viewers that they do have rights under the New York City Human Rights Law and point them to more information. People are also encouraged to report racial discrimination and harassment to the Commission.

Commission Chair Says Election Rhetoric Drove Jump in Harassment

In media statements about the campaign, Commission chair Carmelyn P. Malalis cited the city's desire to counter the toxic climate created by last year's election that led to people feeling "more empowered to be more explicit in their discrimination." The campaign, particularly that of now President Donald Trump, "validated their anger or hatred towards certain groups."

The ad campaign is a response to that, states Malalis.

"It is important that we are messaging to people that regardless of what happens at the federal level, the city of New York will stand up for you," she said. "So much of the rhetoric in the last election cycle, and what continues, is what I would consider to be anti-immigrant - really hateful against people because of where they come from and the languages they speak."

New York City's Progressive Human Rights Law

New York City is right to be proud of - and tout - its Human Rights Law. It is a progressive statute that offers significant protections to residents that go beyond federal and state regulations. It addresses many areas where racial discrimination can be a problem, including the workplace, housing, and public spaces. The law also defines and addresses discriminatory harassment, bias-based harassment by law enforcement, and retaliation.

The employment discrimination aspects of the law are particularly broad and strong. It covers all workers in the city and even classifies interns as employees. The law establishes a number of protected classes, including age, alienage or citizenship status, color, disability, gender (including sexual harassment), gender identity, marital status and partnership status, national origin, pregnancy, race, religion/creed, and sexual orientation. Additional protections are afforded for individuals who are not hired because of their arrest or conviction record, discriminated against due to their caregiver status or credit history, and for those individuals who are victims of domestic violence, stalking, and sex offenses.

The law prohibits employment discrimination against people in the aforementioned protected classes related to:

  • Hiring, firing, and work assignments;
  • Salary;
  • Benefits;
  • Promotions;
  • Performance evaluations;
  • Discipline; and
  • Any decisions that affect the terms and conditions of employment.

It also stipulates that employers must make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities and also for religious observance, including time off for holy days and allowances for religious clothing.

The New York City Human Rights Law also has teeth - and places a lower burden of proof on individuals making complaints than its federal or state anti-discrimination statute counterparts. Under the law, a worker only has to show he or she was treated less well than others due to being a member of a protected class - i.e. because of a person's race, religion, or national origin, etc.

There are also broad protections against retaliation. It bars employers from retaliating against workers who oppose an illegal discriminatory practice or make a complaint. The law also protects those who testify, assist, or participate in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing. Crucially, this protection is in force even if the employer is found not to have violated the law, as long as the individual has a "reasonable good faith belief the employer's conduct is illegal."

In other words, the New York City Human Rights Law is intended to be, and in practice is, one of the most progressive anti-discrimination ordinances in the country.

Current Political Climate Demands Cities Step Up

New York City should be commended for taking the lead in fighting back against a worrying rise in discrimination and harassment. It already had one of the strongest human rights laws on the books - and has now shown it will stand behind that ordinance.

Local governments across the country should be encouraged to follow suit. If they do not already have anti-discrimination and harassment laws in place, steps should be taken to draft and enact them. It is also important that existing laws be enforced to their fullest extent, and that residents are informed of their right to be free from such discrimination and harassment.

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