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New York News

Lawmakers, Survivors Speak Out Before 2nd Hearing On Sexual Harassment

New York State Capitol
Karen DeWitt

The second hearing on sexual harassment in New York state government will be held Friday in New York City. Ahead of the hearing, a group of former legislative staffers who say they have been victims of harassment joined lawmakers to introduce bills to strengthen New York’s laws.

The first hearing, held in February in Albany, featured harrowing accounts from several women and men who detailed harassment by former senators and Assembly members. 

Rita Pasarell, who testified then, was sexually harassed by former Assemblyman Vito Lopez. The Assembly eventually paid Pasarell and another woman a settlement. She said she was also coerced into signing a nondisclosure agreement.

She said weak laws on sexual harassment at the time gave more power to Assembly leadership than to the victims. 

“Under the current law, much of what I experienced and other people in the office (experienced) would not have legally been considered sexual harassment,” Pasarell said. “And that is wrong.”

Pasarell is a member of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which is made up of former legislative staffers who experienced harassment and are now helping write the new bills to update New York’s laws. 

The measures would strengthen victims’ rights in nondisclosure agreements and not allow any contracts that prohibit the victim from filing an official complaint or cooperating with an investigation.

The survivors say the current standard for defining harassment is inadequate. A 1986 law says the harassment needs to be “severe or pervasive” before a victim can seek recourse.

Assemblymember Aravella Simotas said that leaves a gaping loophole for many behaviors that might have been acceptable more than 30 years ago, but are not appropriate in 2019.

“The truth is that some employers have gotten away with murder,” Simotas said. “Pulling bra straps, rubbing lubricant on people’s arms, or suggesting that somebody gets breast implants has not been considered offensive behavior. This is crazy.” 

Simotas is the sponsor of an anti-sexual harassment bill in the Assembly that ends the “severe or pervasive” standard. Another bill, also sponsored by Simotas, extends the statute of limitations to file a sexual harassment complaint from one year to three years. She said it often takes survivors much longer than one year to come to grips with the trauma associated with the harassment and to bring forward a complaint. 

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi is sponsoring several of the bills in the Senate. She said the current laws compromise the safety of women, LGBTQ people and racial minorities in the workplace.

“These are the types of behaviors that have made the individuals who come to work here every day less safe,” Biaggi said. “These are the types of behaviors that have allowed for the legislators in this body to be above the law and below the radar. And we are here to say ‘no more.’”

Simotas said the bills also include provisions for employers to pay punitive damages when there is sexual harassment in the workplace and a requirement that they pay the victims’ legal fees.

“Only then will employers take harassment seriously and not consider it just a nuisance or a cost of doing business,” Simotas said.

Finally, the survivors and the lawmakers want to approve a constitutional amendment to end discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration rewrote the state’s sexual harassment laws in October 2018. But the sponsors of the new bills and the survivors say they don’t go far enough, and there was little public input into the changes. No public hearings were held, and a 14-day public comment period was held in late August.

Cuomo has said he’s open to revising the laws.

Supporters hope some of the measures can be approved before the Legislature ends its session later in June.

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