Workplace harassment: 10 things New York wants to do about it
Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Pelham, discusses a package of bills that would address sexual harassment in the workforce during a news conference at the Capitol on May, 21, 2019. Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY – Lawmakers and advocates gathered in Albany on Tuesday to push for a series of bills aimed at ending workplace harassment and bolster the rights of workers.
The group is hoping to pass 10 bills this session that would expand worker protections, reform non-disclosure laws, establish a new statute of limitations to report workplace harassment and amend the state's constitution to prohibit gender discrimination.
The legislation has the backing of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, an advocacy group co-founded by seven women who experienced workplace harassment while working in the state Legislature.
The group began pushing for a hearing on sexual harassment in 2018, but weren't heard by lawmakers until almost a year later, in February.
Instead, the state adopted legislation last year without hearing from victims that required employers to adopt a sexual harassment policy and provide harassment training to employees.
Employers were also prohibited from including language in contracts that would prevent victims of harassment from suing employers.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo laid out a series of proposals this year would eliminate the statue of limitations on sexual assault.
But hours of powerful testimony from victims and advocates this year has spurred lawmakers to give the issue another look.
A second hearing was scheduled soon after and is set to take place on Friday in New York City.
"The fact that we are here signals, I think, that New York is willing to wake up to what the rest of the country has already woken up to," said Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Pelham, Westchester County.
Biaggi has been leading the effort to reform the state's workplace harassment laws.
She is either the sponsoring or co-sponsoring half of the legislation lawmakers are hoping to pass before the end of session.
But with less than 20 session days left, time is running out.
Here's a rundown of what lawmakers hope to accomplish before June 19, the last scheduled day of session.
Prohibit sex discrimination
Lawmakers are seeking to change the state's constitution to prohibit sex discrimination.
A bill — sponsored by Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, and Steven Otis, D-Port Chester, Westchester County — would extend prohibit discrimination on the basis of everything from gender to national origin.
"New York's constitution should reflect the evolution of concepts of equal rights and protections from discrimination that have occurred over the last eighty years," a memo attached to the bill reads.
The bill would need to pass two separately elected state legislatures and then before being placed on the ballot to be approved by voters. The earlier that could happen would be 2021.
End the severe and pervasive standard
One piece of legislation would eliminate the state's "severe and pervasive" language to bolster protection for workers and allow victims of workplace to better pursue justice.
Under current law, certain behavior, like unwanted touching or pulling bra straps, does not meet the state's severe and pervasive standard, Biaggi said.
The bill would also set a standard for liability for employers and extend punitive damages to victims of workplace harassment.
Non-employees be held accountable
Employers would be required to take corrective action in all cases of sexual harassment made against employees by all non-employees.
Failure to do so would result in discriminatory charges, according to a new bill sponsored by Krueger and Assemblywomen Catalina Cruz, D-Queens.
"Workers in many industries are vulnerable to sexual harassment from customers, guests and other non-employees they encounter in the course of performing their jobs," a memo attached to the bill reads.
Ensure sexual harassment is treated as discrimination
Danielle Bennett, who filed a complaint against then-Assemblyman Micah Kellner, her former boss, speaks out at a hearing on sexual harassment in Albany on Feb. 13, 2019. Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
To prevent future incidents of sexual harassment, lawmakers are hoping to establish a model policy that would treatment harassment incidents as cases of discrimination.
"Discrimination laws serve as a measure to protect individuals from being discriminated against by employees, and, or employers based on a variety of different reasons," a memo attached the bill reads.
The bill has already passed the Assembly this year and now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, is the sponsor.
Extended complaint statue
Under current law, victims of workplace harassment have one year to file a complaint with the state's Division of Human Rights.
Victims, according to the bill's memo, are often hesitant to come forward and are unsure of how to report their abuse.
The bill would also give those seeking damages up to six months to file a claim.
Clarify confidential agreements
Confidentiality agreements are often used to settle cases of sexual harassment.
But a victim is often forced to give up certain rights in order to enter into such an agreement.
A bill would require confidentiality agreements to come with a waiver, clearly explaining what rights are being giving up before an agreement can be finalized.
Confidentiality agreements, commonly called non-disclosure agreements, would also be void if they prevent victims from filing a complaint with either state or federal agencies.
Those seeking to enter into a confidentiality agreement would be given independent consideration to bolster their bargaining power.
Biaggi and Simotas are sponsors of the bill, which would also prohibit confidentiality agreements from including language that would require victims to pay damages for violating the agreement.
The legislation would "prevent abuser from forcing their victims into silence," a memo attached to the bill reads.
Information on rights retained
Employers would be required to inform those seeking to enter into confidentiality agreements of any rights they retain, including the right to report to law enforcement.
The bill would establish "a safeguard against the misuse of non-disclosure agreements as a tool to silence whistleblowers," according to a memo.
Employers would have to provide workers written notice of the company's sexual harassment policy in either English or the employee's primary language.
"Without ensuring that all employees are notified properly and in their primary language, meaningful change in the workplace will be hard to come by," the bill's memo reads.
Extend the statue of limitations
Current law gives victims of workplace discrimination just three years to report their abuse.
But a bill — sponsored by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan — would extend the statute to six years.
"Those who are victims of workplace harassment may not come forward or file complaints for quite some time after the first instance occurs," a memo attached to the bill reads.
The legislation has no Senate sponsor.