In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled an ambitious 10-point plan, called the Women’s Equality Act, for improving women’s rights.
The governor’s plan contains measures designed to eliminate wage disparity — women typically earn less than their male counterparts — strengthen protections and rights for domestic violence victims and bar employers from discriminating against workers with children.
One controversial provision is the Reproductive Health Act, which supporters say would provide much-needed protection for women who choose to get an abortion and opponents say represents an unnecessary expansion of abortion rights.
Cuomo’s proposal comes at a time when women’s issues have proved controversial, at least on the national stage.
President Barack Obama’s victory was partially attributed to the large percentage of single women who voted for him, and political supporters theorized Republican comments about rape and abortion played a role in convincing a majority of female voters to reject the GOP platform. Earlier this month, Congress failed to reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, which had been in effect for 18 years and provided funding for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women.
The Reproductive Health Act would remove abortion from the state’s penal code and make it part of New York’s public health law. Right now, women are barred from getting abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy; by removing abortion from the state’s penal code, the state would effectively decriminalize abortion.
“We’re thrilled,” said Tracey Brooks, president and CEO of Family Planning Advocates of New York State. “The attacks on women are continuing in Washington, and New York state just stood up and said, ‘Not here.’ ”
Brooks said the Reproductive Health Act would strengthen the state’s abortion laws at a time when abortion is increasingly under attack at the federal level. She said women can be faced with serious health complications at any point in their pregnancy, and an abortion that occurs after the 24th week should not be treated as a potential crime. She said the Reproductive Health Act would simply modernize state law.
But Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, doesn’t see it that way. She refers to the Reproductive Health Act as the “abortion expansion bill,” and said it would pave the way for an increase in late-term abortions, threatens religious liberty and precludes restricting abortion in the future by elevating it to a fundamental right.
Gallagher said the Reproductive Health Act has been proposed in the past but never made it to the floor of the state Legislature for a vote. She blasted Cuomo for including it in a package of proposals that the Catholic Conference supports and considers laudable.
“The whole thing is surreal and irrational,” she said. “[The governor] used a video clip of newborn infants in a nursery to highlight [wage] disparity. He never even spoke about the babies who never had a chance to grow up.”
The other measures in the Women’s Equality Act are “things people will support, because they’re good for women and women’s dignity,” Gallagher said. “The bishops had talked about working with the governor to reduce abortion. This goes in the opposite direction.”
New York legalized abortion in 1970, years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973 legalized abortion nationwide.
The Women’s Equality Act would amend state Human Rights Law to protect victims of domestic violence from discrimination when they attempt to purchase, rent, lease or inhabit housing and bar landlords from inquiring about domestic violence victim status.
Another proposal would make it easier for victims of domestic violence to obtain orders of protection against their abusers by allowing them to give testimony by video conference. According to the governor, this would make New York the first state in the country to use video-conference technology to “ensure that trauma, fear and intimidation will not prevent the abused from obtaining an order of protection.”
Connie Neal, executive director of the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, described the Women’s Equality Act as a “very groundbreaking proposal. It’s a very strong plan that’s long overdue. It has the potential to be a model for other states.”
Neal said current law allows landlords to evict domestic violence victims for disruptions and disturbances that are not their fault, because they are caused by their abusers, and praised the plan for addressing this problem.
In his speech, Cuomo noted women in New York earn 84 percent of what men earn and jobs traditionally held by women pay significantly less than jobs predominantly employing men. On average, a woman working full-time is paid $42,113 per year, while a man working full-time is paid $50,388 per year.
To rectify this, the governor proposes amending existing law to ensure women receive the wages they were always entitled to, as well as provide for past damages. Women are entitled to back wages they would have earned had they been paid on an equal basis, plus attorney’s fees, statutory interest and an additional amount of liquidated damages equal to 100 percent of back wages due.
Cuomo called for increasing the amount of liquidated damages to 300 percent of back wages due. He also proposed prohibiting employers from firing or punishing employees who share wage information.
Another proposal would make it illegal to discriminate against parents in the workplace. Cuomo said women with children are less likely to be recommended for hire and promoted and the law should be amended to prohibit employers from denying promotions to employees because they have children.
Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the New York chapter of the League of Women Voters, said the group has been lobbying for state legislation aimed at addressing the wage gap between women and men for decades.
“The time is well past to pay women what they deserve,” she said. “It’s an economic issue and a family issue.”
Another measure addresses workplace sexual harassment. Right now, those working for employers with fewer than four employees cannot file a sexual harassment complaint with the state, exempting small employers from the provisions of state law that prohibit harassment. Cuomo’s proposal would amend the law to allow employees of any business, no matter how small, to file a sexual harassment complaint. More than 60 percent of the state’s private employers have fewer than four employees, according to the governor.
Another measure proposes strengthening the state’s human trafficking laws.
The announcement of the Women’s Equality Act came as a surprise to women’s groups.
“We were not aware that he was going to do that,” said Zenaida Mendez, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women. “It’s very thrilling.”
In his speech, Cuomo noted New York has long been at the vanguard of women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement began at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls. But he also said that “over the years, New York has fallen behind in its role as a progressive leader on women’s rights.”