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EDITORIAL: Harassment bill must be a priority

EDITORIAL: Harassment bill must be a priority

Bill would change standard for reporting to make it easier for victims of workplace harassment to bring complaints
EDITORIAL: Harassment bill must be a priority
Rita Pasarell, left, and Leah Hebert
Photographer: Victoria Will/The New York Times

 

“In 2011, we worked for former New York State Assembly Member Vito Lopez — a powerful elected official who treated his professional female staff like dolls to dress up, often directing us to wear heels, short skirts, no bras and pressuring us to share hotel rooms with him. He slid his hand up one worker’s thigh, touched another worker’s breasts while pretending he was swatting flies and required staff to give him degrading and humiliating massages. We frequently told him to stop, but he completely ignored us and continued to escalate. When we each rejected his sexual advances, he demoted and fired us.”

Far too many women in the workplace can very much relate to the experiences of Rita Pasarell and Leah Hebert, two former top aides to the late former assemblyman, as recalled in their op-ed piece published Thursday in the New York Daily News.

It’s unconscionable that women are still subjected to this kind of harassment and that men in positions of authority not only feel they can get away with it, but that they often do. What’s worse, lax state laws help protect the perpetrators.

One bill pending in the Legislature (A7083/S3817) — which absolutely must pass before lawmakers go home for the summer a couple of weeks from now — would help by lowering the threshold for bringing forth an allegation of sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as impose other rules and sanctions.

Right now, claims must meet the standard of “severe or pervasive” in order for employers to take action — what some call the “one free grope rule.”

This highly subjective, unfair and difficult-to-prove standard has allowed people to get away with all kinds of abusive behavior.

Under the new legislation, women would only have to prove the harassment escalated above “petty slights or inconveniences.” This is a far more reasonable standard that, while still subjective, would eliminate all but the least offensive actions.

The bill goes further to ensure protections for any kind of workplace harassment, including harassment over age, race, gender identity, sexual orientation and other factors. It also protects people who have brought complaints from being punished by their employers, a frequent reason victims give for not coming forward.

Employers would be sanctioned if they knew about the conduct and did nothing to stop it, if they failed to set clear policies, or if they created and condoned an atmosphere that allowed such conduct to go on.

Despite the greater threat of liability from tougher harassment laws, it’s been found that strict enforcement of sexual-harassment policies actually benefits businesses by making all workers more productive, reducing turnover and improving the company’s reputation.

This law should have been passed years ago. The fact that it hasn’t shows how far New York has to go to eliminate discrimination in the workplace.

Passage would be a big step forward.

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