The New York legislature has historically been loath to address sexual harassment within its ranks, a problem critics attribute to a firmly entrenched boys club culture. As the #MeToo movement surfaced systemic sexual misconduct across basically every conceivable industry, however, lawmakers did pass a set of anti-harassment laws last spring—without soliciting input from the public, and without consulting the women in the Senate or Assembly. On Wednesday, roughly six months after the fact, legislators will finally hold public hearings on the matter.
The hearing comes after sustained pressure from advocacy groups and women lawmakers. The eight-person (as of Monday) Sexual Harassment Working Group, made up of women who say they’ve experienced and/or witnessed sexual harassment while working with the men of Albany, has been pushing for a hearing since the laws passed as part of the 2018 budget last March. Cynthia Nixon has also joined, according to a press release.
At the time, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and then-IDC leader Jeff Klein hashed out the policies in secretive negotiations that excluded their female colleagues. Adding insult to injury, Klein had just been publicly accused of forcibly kissing a female staffer, Erica Vladimer, a former fellow and policy analyst for the IDC, who is now also a member of the Sexual Harassment Working group. (Klein denies the allegations.)
“It’s time to stop putting politics over human rights,” Vladimer said at a press conference in August, according to the Gotham Gazette. “The first way we can do that is with public hearings…where workers from every industry—government, retail, food service, hospitality—can be heard by those we elect to legislate on our behalf and those who are appointed to enforce those protections.”
The laws passed last March mandated that all state contractors institute sexual harassment policies, in line with measures outlined by the State Department of Labor and the Division of Human Rights, and train their employees on them. Employers would also have to dispense with any contractual language barring employees from suing over workplace harassment, and allows for nondisclosure agreements only when the victim asks for them.
Cuomo touted these as “the strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual harassment protections in the nation,” but critics contended the language left complainants vulnerable to retaliation. Launching their campaign under the hashtag, #HarassmentFreeAlbany, the working group released a set of policy recommendations to shore up protections for survivors. These include embedding stronger, clearer definitions of sex- and gender-based harassment in the state constitution; establishing and funding an independent New York State Division of Human Rights to police the enforcement of discrimination and harassment laws; and amending state law to better hold both individual employees who discriminate and their employers accountable, and keep them from covering up bad behavior.
Between 2008 and 2017, New York quietly paid out $11 million to settle 84 complaints of workplace harassment, assault, and discrimination by state employees. The problem is pernicious, and solving it requires that “officials … also hear from workers across industries,” as working group members Leah Hebert and Rita Pasarell, both of whom have described their own harassment by former Assembly member Vito Lopez, wrote in a Times Union editorial in August.
“Providing victims a platform to share experiences is the first step in the #MeToo revolution,” they argued. “The more we talk about the harmful impact of workplace harassment and discrimination, and the failures of the systems put in place to prevent these violations and crimes, the more those around us understand what and how to change.”