Just two or three years ago, it was obvious how little New York State's legislative leaders seemingly cared about sexual harassment in the workplace. They swept their own sexual harassment claims under the rug with public money, silenced victims with NDAs, and allowed the accused to maintain positions of power. This year was different: the Democratically-controlled State Legislature passed comprehensive protections for workers against sexual harassment, and today Governor Andrew Cuomo signed that package into law.
The laws prohibit mandatory arbitration to settle cases, require NDAs to explicitly allow employees to file complaints and participate in investigations, extend the statute of limitations to make complaints to Division of Human Rights from one year to three years, and extends the laws to all employers in the state, and all employees, including contractors and domestic workers.
The most significant change today's laws make is to the standard workers must meet to report sexual harassment. Previously, New York Human Rights Law required that the conduct be "severe or pervasive" to merit action. Today's bills lower that high standard.
"There were dozen of cases that were physically harmful but didn't meet [the requirement]," said Rita Pasarell, former legislative counsel and deputy chief of staff to former Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Lopez resigned in 2013 after an ethics board found he had sexually assaulted or harassed at least eight of his female subordinates.
"People have heard about his physical attacks, but his gropes would not have been considered harassment because of this bad standard," Pasarell said.
Pasarell is a co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, comprised of former legislative employees who experienced, witnessed, or reported sexual harassment by state lawmakers. The group's #HarassmentFreeAlbany campaign helped spur lawmakers to act.
In December of 2017, public radio correspondent Karen DeWitt asked Governor Cuomo about the problems with sexual harassment in state government and his own administration, and what he was going to do about it.
"When you say it's state government, you do a disservice to women, with all due respect, even though you're a woman, Cuomo responded at the time.
The governor's exchange with @kdewitt7 on possible changes to the state's sexual harrassment policy in light of the surge in national stories on the issue, along with ex-aide Sam Hoyt. pic.twitter.com/pOJATOohRr
— New York NOW (@NYNOW_PBS) December 13, 2017
The governor was less ambiguous in a press release announcing his signature on the legislation today: "There has been an ongoing, persistent culture of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination in the workplace, and now it is time to act."
Elizabeth Crothers, a former state legislative aide and another co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, said that she felt "up until the very last second, that something was going to happen" and prevent the passage of the laws, and credited the advancement to the tenacity of certain lawmakers and advocates.
Crothers singled out the legislation's co-sponsors, Bronx State Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Queens Assemblymember Aravella Simotas. Senator Biaggi chaired the first sexual harassment hearing at the state capitol in 27 years.
"I'd love to say that a bunch of people all of a sudden decided that they cared. But I think in reality, it was a force of advocacy and legislators who were willing to take risks and expend political capital and who actually knew that this is an important issue and weren't willing to ignore it," Crothers said.
"Before this legislation I would have had a very difficult time telling someone, yeah go report it," Crothers said. "Now with this legislation, I would feel far more comfortable telling someone yes."
You can learn more about the new protections here.