Editorial

Albany must pass sex harassment bills

Posted

After the #MeToo movement exploded into the national consciousness in 2017 and 2018, New York state lawmakers recently proposed no fewer than 11 bills to strengthen the state’s sexual harassment laws. The measures have been put forth, most often, by relatively new women members of the Legislature.

Given the level of sexual harassment that the #MeToo movement exposed, the Legislature is obliged to at least give each of the bills a fair hearing, and we hope it will pass some of them as lawmakers enter the final two months of the 2019 legislative session.

In February, they hosted the first joint legislative hearing on sexual harassment in 27 years — 27 years! At the meeting, experts and advocates discussed numerous fixes for state laws pertaining to sexual harassment. A slew of bills followed.

The 11 measures that came out of the hearing are now under review in committee. Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, a Democrat from Long Island City, and State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat from the Bronx, are taking the lead on this issue. Simotas and Biaggi sponsored many of the bills that have been offered. Below are several pieces of proposed legislation:

• One Simotas-Biaggi measure would require settlements relating to sexual harassment, sexual assault or discrimination to be disclosed to the state attorney general’s office. The office could then investigate any individual or institution that had settled more than three times.

• Simotas and Biaggi also sponsored a bill to extend the time to file a sexual harassment complaint from one year to three years.

• Another Simotas-Biaggi bill would mandate annual bystander intervention training for sexual harassment prevention for all state employees.

• Another measure would require employers to provide a waiver to any party who is asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. The waiver would have to explain the rights that she or he would give up by signing the agreement.

• This bill would require parties entering into a nondisclosure agreement to be informed that doing so would not prevent them from speaking with police, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the state Division of Human Rights or a local commission on human rights.

• A bill sponsored by State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, would establish sexual harassment prevention training protocols for the private sector.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently revealed the 2019 Women’s Justice Agenda, which includes increased protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. In his outline for the agenda, Cuomo said he aimed to remove the requirement that conduct must be “severe and pervasive” to constitute sexual harassment under the Human Rights Law. In effect, he would like to reduce that standard in order to allow for more sexual harassment claims.

Cuomo also sought to protect employees’ rights to pursue complaints by mandating that all non-disclosure agreements in employment contracts include language stating that employees may still file complaints of harassment or discrimination with a state or local agency and testify or participate in a government investigation. Additionally, Cuomo wants all employers to post sexual harassment education posters in their workplaces.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group, which comprises seven former State Legislature staffers, each of whom experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, encouraged lawmakers to approve the bills, and offered amendments.

For too long, the Legislature disregarded sexual harassment as an issue of critical importance to New Yorkers. We are pleased to see that, thanks in large part to an infusion of new blood in the Legislature, the issue is at long last being addressed. Lawmakers must work, however, to ensure that the new measures don’t now fall by the wayside and into the great scrapheap of past proposed legislation.

How to file a complaint

To file a sexual harassment complaint, contact the Office of the New York State Attorney General Civil Rights Bureau at (212) 416-8250 or civil.rights@ag.ny.gov. The office is at 120 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10271.