National News

Albany Lawmakers Signal Consensus on New Sexual Harassment Policies

Posted January 2, 2018 6:23 p.m. EST

A day before the start of what promises to be a contentious new legislative session, state policymakers signaled at least one area of possible agreement: cracking down on sexual harassment in New York government.

On Tuesday morning, a day before his annual State of the State address, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced plans to propose legislation that would block government officials from using taxpayer dollars to settle sexual harassment claims, ban confidentiality agreements related to sexual harassment in state and local government, and standardize anti-harassment policies across government agencies.

The plan is among 21 proposals in Cuomo’s annual address that he has unveiled since December, including his most recent: calling on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to look at improving transportation access to the Red Hook, Brooklyn area, including possibly extending subway service to a new station from Lower Manhattan. The governor also plans to preview legislation that would provide tax relief to property owners, a key issue in light of the federal move to reduce state and local property tax deductions.

The sexual-harassment proposals closely mirror others put forward by state lawmakers from both parties in recent weeks: In mid-December, state Sens. Catharine Young and Elaine Phillips, both Republicans, proposed bills that, in addition to banning secret settlements, would also codify the definition of sexual harassment in state law and expand harassment protections for independent contractors.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate Democratic Conference, led by Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, put forward its own slate of similar bills, which would also more clearly outline state agencies’ and supervisors’ responsibilities to address harassment in their ranks.

All told, the nearly identical proposals reflect an unusual degree of consensus among the notoriously divided state Legislature. Policymakers said the agreement illustrates the extent to which there has been a recent national reckoning on workplace equality.

“I don’t think anybody could have avoided this topic, as you saw person after person being put into the limelight because of questionable behavior,” Stewart-Cousins, the Senate minority leader, said in an interview on Tuesday. “It sounds like everybody’s talking about it, so it sounds like everybody wants to do something.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, and Sen. Jeffrey Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of renegade Democrats who often collaborate with the Republicans, also signaled their willingness on Tuesday to tighten policies against workplace sexual harassment.

Albany has already been entangled in the recent surge of alleged sexual misconduct disclosures. In November, Lisa Marie Cater, a former state employee, filed a lawsuit against Sam Hoyt, a former Cuomo appointee and former Democratic assemblyman from Buffalo, accusing him of paying $50,000 to buy her silence after he sexually harassed her. Cater also accused Cuomo and the governor’s office of being “deliberately indifferent” to her complaints.

When a public radio reporter asked Cuomo last month about the allegations against Hoyt and what he could have done differently to address such behavior in state government, Cuomo told the reporter, Karen DeWitt, that her question did a “disservice to women.”

“When you say it’s state government, you do a disservice to women, with all due respect, even though you’re a woman,” he told DeWitt.

After Cuomo’s comments attracted widespread criticism, his aides scrambled to clarify that he had meant to convey the prevalence of sexual harassment across sectors.

In a statement on Tuesday, Cuomo said the past year had brought a “long overdue reckoning.”

“This year, we saw brave men and women across the nation shatter this silence and create a moment of reckoning that through these reforms we seek to turn into permanent protections,” he said.

Many of the various proposals wade into the private as well as the public domain. Cuomo’s planned legislation would require any companies with state business to disclose the number of sexual harassment cases they had faced each year, and would bar employers from forcing their employees into private arbitration. One of the Democrats’ bills would expand protections for employees of small businesses.

Young said the focus on harassment by celebrities and public officials, both in New York and nationwide, threatened to overshadow victims of sexual harassment whose accused abusers were less well known. She said her proposal to allow independent contractors, in industries ranging from hair styling to real estate, to sue their employers for sexual harassment could ensure protections for up to 40 percent of New Yorkers, the percentage she said work on a freelance or contract basis.

“This tackles the serial sexual predators of the rich and famous but also helps everyday New Yorkers who may find themselves in terrible situations,” Young said. Lawmakers said the question of who to hold accountable for sexual harassment in Albany had been a topic of concern for years, citing the example of Vito Lopez, a former assemblyman whom two former aides accused of serial harassment in 2013. In 2015, Lopez settled with the women for $580,000, with the state paying $545,000.

But they agreed that the fallout from the revelations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein had forcefully reopened the discussion.

“ I think it was clear that women realized that this was a moment to really assert ourselves,” Stewart-Cousins, who is the first woman to lead a state conference in New York, said. “As a legislator, as a woman lawmaker, I couldn’t let this moment pass.”