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Editorial: Action to stop workplace sexual harassment is long overdue

Editorial: Action to stop workplace sexual harassment is long overdue

It’s a pervasive problem that lawmakers and the governor only began to address legislatively last year
Editorial: Action to stop workplace sexual harassment is long overdue
Photographer: shutterstock

We don’t know which is worse.

That our state legislators needed a hearing before taking action to stop sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace, or that it took 27 years for them to hold it.

But now that a hearing has been held, the next step is action.

During an extraordinary joint hearing of the state Assembly and Senate last week, victims of sexual harassment and abuse in state government took turns telling their stories, in hopes of getting the state to toughen up its laws that allow bosses and co-workers to abuse, threaten, intimidate and control their targeted victims.

In addition to their accounts of sexual harassment itself, several victims who testified last week told of others’ efforts to discourage them from coming forward — including threats to expose them to the media or to have them fired — and to prevent them from telling their stories after they’d come forward.

They also recounted how even when they came forward, either no action was taken or they were not told what, if anything, was done to resolve their complaints.

COMPELLING TESTIMONY
Leah Hebert, a former aide to the late Assemblyman Vito Lopez, testified how she “was severely traumatized, and suffered from regular panic attacks and suicidal thoughts” due to harassment by the assemblyman,  and that when she finally brought a complaint, she was by then a “shell of my former self, both physically and emotionally,” according to the Times Union.

Another staffer for Lopez, Chloe Rivera, recalled how she experienced signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in an atmosphere in which the assemblyman forced her to wear revealing clothing and paraded her around to his friends, the Times Union reported.

Elizabeth Crothers testified that Michael Boxley, a former top aide to former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, raped her in 2001. Boxley was arrested in 2003 for assaulting another woman and was convicted of sexual misconduct.

And Erica Vladimer, an aide to former Sen. Jeff Klein, talked about how Klein forcibly kissing her in a bar in 2015 and then discussed her struggles to come forward when faced with the choice of participating in a reporting process she didn’t trust, ignoring the attack, or quitting, according to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.

Those were just some of the stories that were told, and only the tip of the iceberg of what has been going on, largely ignored or covered up, in government offices, departments and colleges around the state for many years.

MANY CASES, COSTLY TAXPAYER PAYOUTS
Astonishingly, this was the first time since 1992 that the Legislature formally heard from victims. That despite the fact that in the last decade, state taxpayers have paid out more than $11 million to settle 84 cases of sexual harassment in state agencies and colleges.

Those settlements included $1.8 million to settle a case at a Chautauqua County shock incarceration facility — in which a female cook claimed to have been victimized by threats, sexual harassment and gender discrimination -- and $1 million paid to two women in 2018 who accused their supervisor at a drug treatment center in Seneca County of making repeated unwanted sexual advances and disciplining them when they filed a complaint. 

Two cases amounting to a total of nearly $600,000 in payouts were settled in the last four years against two former staffers of Lopez and one staffer who claimed she was fired by former Assemblywoman Gabriela Rosa after getting pregnant.

The tally of payouts does not include out-of-court settlements, which certainly would jack up the total.

Since 2006, eight members of the state Assembly have either faced sanctions or resigned over sexual harassment allegations. And former Assembly Speaker Silver, who resigned in 2015 over a separate corruption scandal, was accused of protecting perpetrators and allowing sexual harassment to go on for decades while he led the Assembly.

It’s a pervasive problem that lawmakers and the governor only began to address legislatively last year, with the creation of a model sexual harassment policy and a ban on mandatory arbitration.

But victims feel that legislation didn’t go far enough.

Until New York state’s Legislature and the governor fully devote their resources and legislative authority to stop sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, it will continue to go on.

REFORMS
One of the reforms under consideration this year would remove the statute of limitations for second- and third-degree rape so victims would have more time to come forward.

One bill (A869/S2037)  would mandate that victims who agree to sign nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) would still be allowed to file complaints with law enforcement and participate in  government investigations. NDAs often allow sexual harassment to continue and prevent victims from getting justice by prohibiting them from discussing their allegations with anyone, even police or government investigators.

Lawmakers also are considering legislation to lower the standard for sexual harassment from the current standard of “severe and pervasive” workplace harassment. Some forms of harassment, such as physical touches or even frequent harassment, do not meet the current standard, preventing victims from bringing legitimate cases forward.

The new standard would state that harassment that has been found to create a “hostile environment or tangible job detriment” is unlawful when it results in individuals being treated not as well as others in the same protected class.

These are just some of the changes that are under consideration and that need to be made.

Then hopefully, when the state holds another hearing on sexual harassment in the workplace 27 years from now, there will be no victims to testify.

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