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Editorial: Do more to protect victims of workplace sexual abuse

Editorial: Do more to protect victims of workplace sexual abuse

At the same time lawmakers are making laws for the rest of us, they need to be making laws to govern their own practices
Editorial: Do more to protect victims of workplace sexual abuse
Photographer: Shutterstock

It’s 2018, for heaven’s sake.

Isn’t it about time that women are able to go to work in an environment where they don’t have to feel threatened by sexual harassment from bosses and co-workers?

Since some people can’t conduct themselves appropriately, it’s going to be up to the state Legislature to toughen workplace laws to make it easier for affected workers to make complaints and to make it easier for companies to crack down on and remove offenders.

But on an issue like this that straddles the line between social policy and the law, it will be difficult for the Legislature to claim the moral high ground when its own policies regarding sexual harassment are so lax and outdated.

At the same time they’re making laws for the rest of us, they need to be making laws to govern their own practices.

Both can be accomplished during this legislative session if lawmakers make it a priority.

Victims of sexual harassment, most often women, have reported being regularly exposed to bosses conducting themselves inappropriately in the workplace with vulgar comments and sexual innuendo, disparaging comments about rape and rape victims, kissing and rubbing up against female employees, and demanding sexual favors and retaliating against employees who didn’t go along. Other victims have said their bosses promoted a culture of sexual harassment, such as by giving plum assignments to men and interfering with women’s promotions and advancement.

It’s not just the victims of sexual harassment who are paying the price for all this inappropriate conduct. It’s also state taxpayers.

The New York Daily News, obtaining documents through the state’s Freedom of Information Law, reported last month that in the past 10 years, the state had settled 85 lawsuits, at a combined cost of nearly $12 million, involving claims of sexual harassment or sex discrimination at state agencies, hospitals, prisons and schools overseen by the state.

State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) colleges alone cost the state $2.4 million over the last 10 years to settle 19 lawsuits involving allegations of sexual harassment, assault or discrimination, the paper reported.

That’s our tax dollars being used to settle lawsuits with victims instead of the money being used for other legitimate state purposes.

Wouldn’t it be better for the victims and taxpayers if the state created a work environment in which sexual harassment and abuse wasn’t tolerated at all?

Politicians have talked a good game this year so far, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders agreeing that the problem needs to be addressed, both in state government and the private sector.

The governor’s state of the state message included necessary reforms such as preventing government officials from using taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment claims, banning confidentiality agreements related to sexual harassment cases at all levels of government, and standardizing policies against improper sexual conduct.

Senate Democrats also put forth a package in January, according to the New York Times, that would make lawmakers personally liable for financial settlements, impose civil financial penalties against offenders, protect the procedural rights of victims in arbitration cases, ban settlement-confidentiality agreements, and protect victims who formally accuse their superiors of misconduct from being subject to retaliation and ensure job protection. 

Lawmakers also need to specifically define prohibited conduct so there’s no ambiguity for companies, harassers or victims; establish clearly defined and stated policies and penalties for sexual harassment,;and provide a path for speedy judgment so victims aren’t denied their rights through extended proceedings.

Many of these ideas are accompanied by specific legislation already prepared for our state representatives to vote on.

Now it’s time for lawmakers to put their money where their mouth is by passing actual legislation and policy changes that are enforced with tough penalties.

Many of these same procedures could be valuable if enacted in the private sector.

The state’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2011 (the latest year for which statistics have been posted online) received 11,364 complaints of sexual harassment, resulting in more than 1,300 settlements and costing employers more than $52 million, not including settlements in cases brought by outside litigation. Of those claims, 84 percent were filed by women and 16 percent by men. And many believe the number of complaints vastly underestimates the extent of the problem. One poll stated that 62 percent of women’s complaints go unreported. Do the math.

This is a big problem for which legislative solutions are long overdue.

One bill pending in the Legislature this year (A6290), dubbed the “Women’s Workplace Protection Act,” would collectively address the issue by identifying sexual harassment as an unlawful discriminatory practice and comprehensively defining sexual harassment based on federal EEOC guidelines.

The bill also would subject employers who subject an employee to sexual harassment to punitive damages of up to $3.1 million through the state Division of Human Rights, and would extend current protections for whistleblowers who bring cases to a public agency. Right now, sexual harassment in New York is not defined as unlawful discriminatory conduct under state human rights law.

Another bill (A8910/S7193) would require the state Department of Labor, working with the Division of Human Rights, to draft a model sexual harassment policy and model sexual harassment prevention training for private-sector employees. And it would specifically define sexual harassment and list it as an unlawful discriminatory practice.

Yet another bill (A7808/S4053) would provide legal redress through civil courts for employees who have been harmed psychologically, physically or economically by workplace harassment and provide legal incentives for employers to prevent and respond to reports of employee mistreatment.

These are just some of the ways the state Legislature can finally address the problem of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination in the workplace.

Other states have already enacted many of these protections.

It’s time New York stepped up and did its part to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for all.

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