In September, Governor Kathy Hochul signed a legislative package strengthening protections for New York workers. The package covers free speech rights, wage theft, and workers’ compensation benefits.
“This legislation will help to ensure that all New Yorkers receive the benefits and protections that allow them to work with dignity,” Governor Hochul said. “My administration is committed to making our state the most worker-friendly state in the nation.”
This blog is a brief discussion of the new worker protections now in effect in New York.
Protection from Captive Audience Meetings
Otherwise known as the “captive audience bill,” S4982/A6604 prohibits employers from penalizing employees for not attending meetings that advance the company’s political or religious viewpoint. The legislation broadly defines ‘political matters’ to include “matters relating to the decision to join or support any labor organization.”
More specifically, a captive audience meeting is a mandatory meeting organized by an employer whose workers have expressed interest in unionizing. During these meetings, employers discourage union-organizing activities in the workplace, a tactic referred to as union busting.
Although the courts have deemed captive audience meetings lawful under the National Labor Relations Act, these meetings have come under greater scrutiny since a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) April 2022 memo stating such meetings violate the Act.
While the captive audience bill will likely face legal challenges and may be preempted by the NLRA, employers should review current policies to ensure they comply with existing law and consider holding voluntary meetings during which the employer expresses its views about unionization if they are subject to a union organizing effort.
Wage Theft Accountability
Another new bill signed by the governor, S2832-A/A154-A, amends the penal code to include wage theft under the definition of larceny. According to Cornell University’s Worker Institute, wage theft in New York accounts for nearly $1 billion in lost wages each year, affecting tens of thousands of workers. Although employers have the upper hand when it comes to wages, common types of wage theft include:
- Not paying for all hours worked
- Paying less than minimum wage
- Misclassifying workers as independent contractors
- Denying overtime pay
- Illegal deductions from paychecks
- Requiring off-the-clock work
This legislation allows prosecutors to seek stricter penalties against unscrupulous employers who steal from their workers; however, whether the bill will deter wage theft going forward remains to be seen.
Enhanced Workers’ Compensation Benefits
To protect low-wage workers who are injured and unable to work, S1161-A/A2034-A increases minimum temporary or partial disability benefits to $275 in 2024 and $325 in 2025. The minimum will be no less than one-fifth of the state average weekly wage beginning in 2026.
With these new laws in effect, employees have protection against retaliation for refusing to attend captive audience meetings, employers can face criminal charges for wage theft, and injured workers have expanded workers’ comp benefits. The best way for employers and employees to understand their rights and obligations in this evolving legal landscape is to consult an experienced employment lawyer.