Lawmakers advance sexual harassment protections
ALBANY — State lawmakers stoked the flames of justice Tuesday to improve protections and legal rights for victims of sexual harassment and to continue changing a toxic workplace culture pervasive across public and private sectors.
The Senate moved seven bills Tuesday — several of which will continue to advance in the Assembly this week — to extend the statute of limitations for discrimination complaints, close loopholes and clarify sexual harassment policies and expand related protections and resources for all New York employees.
“We’ve never taken our eye off of the ball in working to make the workplace safer for everyone,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea A. Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers. “New York state will not tolerate harassment in the workplace in any way, shape or form.”
The package includes measures to extend the statute of limitations for employment discrimination, including sexual harassment, from three years to six years; to establish a free confidential Workplace Sexual Harassment hotline; extend the statute of limitations for discriminatory complaints to the Division of Human Rights to three years; and expand anti-discrimination provisions under state Human Rights Law to all employers.
Senators passed the Let Survivors Speak Act on Tuesday to bar settlements of harassment and discrimination claims that include terms or conditions for a plaintiff to pay liquidated damages for violating a Non-Disclosure Agreement to discuss their experiences, and protect them from retaliation.
“The bill is a really crucial step to make sure any survivor who chooses to enter into a settlement agreement can have no financial punishment for deciding to speak their truth,” said sponsor Sen. Alessandra R. Biaggi, D-Bronx, who chairs the Senate’s Ethics and Internal Governance Committee.
The Assembly on Tuesday passed Biaggi and Manhattan Democratic Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou’s measure to create the free sexual harassment hotline. It remains in the Senate Codes Committee.
Lawmakers announced the legislative package Tuesday — the first day of Women’s History Month — six months after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo resigned in disgrace after the Assembly’s impeachment investigation and a state Attorney General’s Office report concluded he sexually harassed at least 11 women. The former governor started an advertising campaign this week to cast doubt into the report and clear his name.
“These reforms are long overdue, particularly in light of the disgraceful and abusive behaviors that former Gov. Andrew Cuomo exacted upon his survivors,” the state Sexual Harassment Working Group said in a statement Tuesday. “We need these bills to ensure that being abused is not a job requirement in New York state.”
Senators also passed Sen. Andrew S. Gounardes’ “No-Rehire” ban to eliminate clauses in settlements for employees or independent contractors who filed a claim against their employer from preventing them to work at the company in the future.
“If you work at a multi-national corporation or business with locations all across the state or the country … and you’re told you can never apply to that company anywhere else … it ends up unfairly targeting those individuals who choose to come out and speak about what has happened to them,” Gounardes, D-Brooklyn, said. “That is no longer acceptable.”
Measures to extend the statute of limitations for harassment and discrimination to six years, to ban liquidated damages in settlement agreements and to ban the “no-rehire” clause in workplace settlement agreements remain in Assembly Judiciary or Codes committees.
“Unfortunately, many of the same bills that passed the Senate today, including three SHWG-supported bills, are still in limbo in the halls of the Assembly,” according to the Sexual Harassment Working Group. “We look forward to Speaker (Carl E.) Heastie building on his commitment to protect the rights of workers and survivors by bringing the remaining bills to the Assembly floor for a vote.”
Democrats in the Senate Majority conference said they will build on the current momentum to lead the legislative push to strengthen protections for victims of sexual harassment and assault this session — starting the conversation with their Assembly colleagues months before regular session ends in June.
“We will continue to discuss other bills with our members,” Assembly Majority spokesperson Kerri Biche said Tuesday.
Gounardes’ legislation also passed the Senate on Tuesday to prohibit employers from releasing the personnel files of employees in retaliation against a worker complaining or assisting with the process to report unlawful discriminatory practices. The measure comes after executive aides under Cuomo released the personnel records of former staffer Lindsey Boylan — the first woman to publicly accuse him of sexual harassment and misconduct in December 2020.
“Last year, what we witnessed is a paradigm shift in our state’s culture and New Yorkers made it very clear that workplaces that silence and stifle and abuse survivors of sexual harassment will not be tolerated,” Biaggi said.
Nearly 75% of workplace sexual harassment goes unreported because of a series of reasons, including lack of resources or education to report incidents.
Sen. Brad M. Hoylman, D-Manhattan, sponsored the measure to raise the statute of limitations for unlawful discriminatory complaints to the Human Rights Division and noted an estimated 25% to 85% of women have reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.
About 75% of those women fear retaliation, preventing them from coming forward.
“We have a New York human rights law that provides powerful protections against discrimination and harassment, but it has attached to it an arbitrarily short statute of limitations for filing administrative complaints,” Hoylman said. “Those often benefit individuals who are actually doing the discriminating and the harassing.”
“People don’t always come forward to report harassment or discrimination immediately after it happens,” he added, citing shame, fear and cultural norms. “It takes time to get that courage.”
Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, has provided vague answers about the chamber’s support for the Adult Survivors Act, which died in the lower house last year.
Sponsored by Hoylman and Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, the bill would allow New Yorkers who suffered sexual abuse after the age of 18 to file civil lawsuits against their abusers for one year, regardless of expired statutes of limitations on legal claims.
Members continue to have conversations about the urgency and need for reform and greater protections for victims of sexual harassment and assault.
“I think there’s broad bipartisan support and I expect we’ll get it passed,” Hoylman said Tuesday of the Adult Survivors Act.
The Adult Survivors Act is on the Senate floor calendar to be voted on in the coming days.
The senator noted that momentum for the measure is building in the Assembly.
Rosenthal had cited a lack of education among Assembly colleagues last session to pass the measure in the other chamber.
“Assemblymember Rosenthal has really done her job in the other house and has a record number of co-sponsors, so the impetus is there,” Hoylman said. “The stories have been told by so many survivors. We really have them to thank for how far we’ve gotten so far. But I expect success, hopefully this session, and a governor signature shortly thereafter.”
Senators unanimously passed the Adult Survivors Act last spring.