In the eleventh hour of their legislative session, New York State lawmakers passed bills strengthening protections against workplace sexual harassment. Measures approved in both the Assembly and Senate on Wednesday would eliminate the difficult-to-prove "severe or pervasive" standard in harassment cases, expanding employees' opportunities to take legal action when they've been subjected to a hostile work environment.
In a statement to Gothamist, Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who sponsored bill S.6577, said the old standard "allowed a wide range of inappropriate behavior and sexual misconduct to be swept under the rug."
"The new protections against sexual harassment and discrimination serve to close the gaping holes in New York state law that have previously silenced survivors and failed to hold perpetrators liable," Biaggi said. The new bill, she added, will "ensure that employers across all sectors are held accountable for addressing all forms of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace."
In a separate statement, she framed the measure as "a culmination of the blood, sweat, and tears of courageous survivors, fierce advocates, and dedicated lawmakers," and thanked the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a collective formed by women who'd seen and experienced misconduct by Albany lawmakers and their staff. They have been pushing for tougher reforms since a group of male lawmakers (one of whom has been accused of non-consensually kissing a staffer) added anti-harassment measures to last year's budget deal, without involving the legislature's women, and without soliciting public feedback.
"It is because of [the Working Group's] courage to share their survivor stories," Biaggi said, "their resilience to overcome the obstacles placed before them, their strength to fight back when they were told no, and their selfless commitment to making New York a safer place for everyone, that New Yorkers today will now be better protected against sexual assault and harassment."
In an interview with WNYC, SHWG co-founder Elizabeth Crothers praised the bills' passage as a move that "strengthens the [existing] laws so that they are meaningful." That's in contrast to last year's measures, which Crothers said were "hailed by some as giving strong sexual harassment protections, the strongest in the nation, but ... would not have improved the situation for any of us on the working group." Wednesday's legislation, she continued, "goes further than a press release ... or just saying, 'Great, we're done, case closed,' which is what they've been doing for decades."
"Having victim-centered and trauma-informed [legislation]," she added, "will hopefully make a difference, legally and institutionally and culturally."
And to those who have been publicly inert or silent, I wish I were more surprised. But not too late to start, keep on, listen, not give up-- because people matter, and sexual harassment and assault is devastating. Now is not too late. @harassment_free #TellAlbany @Biaggi4NY
— Elizabeth Crothers (@ElizaCrothers4) June 17, 2019
Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo convened a press conference, alongside members of Time's Up and actor Mira Sorvino, calling on lawmakers to overturn the "severe or pervasive" sexual harassment standard, and to do away with non-disclosure agreements that bar former employees from participating in, or instigating, investigations into workplace sexual harassment. Bills passed in both bodies would eliminate NDAs that silence workers; they would also expand protections to cover domestic workers and contractors (the Assembly's version explicitly covers "all employees in the state"). They will remove the requirement (the Faragher-Ellerth defense) that an employee who's suffered discrimination make a formal complaint in order to hold the company liable, and will obligate employers to clarify their harassment policies—in employees' primary languages—at hiring and during training.
Additionally, the legislation will extend the statute of limitations on reporting from one year to three, "granting survivors the necessary time to process, report complaints, and seek the justice they deserve," Biaggi told Gothamist.
"We held two hearings on this bill because it was critical that it be directly informed by survivors and workers in all sectors," she said, "and I believe that its contents strongly reflect that."
At last week's press conference, Cuomo also called on lawmakers to eliminate the statute of limitations on second- and third-degree rape. Under current law, a person can only press charges for up to five years after the fact; per new legislation passed Wednesday in both the Assembly and Senate, survivors now have 20 years to take legal action on second-degree rape, and 10 years to take legal action on third-degree rape.