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Gov. Hochul signs anti-sexual harassment measures into law

New York Governor Kathy Hochul
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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New York Governor Kathy Hochul

Governor Kathy Hochul on Wednesday signed a package of anti-sexual harassment bills into law meant to hold New York’s elected officials more accountable for their actions in such cases.

Hochul, saying everyone has the right to a “safe, secure workplace,” signed laws that close a loophole that held state elected officials exempt from the consequences of sexual harassment, because they were not technically employed by the state or a municipality. The new law makes the state, town or city accountable for the actions of its elected officials.

“Let’s close the loophole once and for all,” said the Democrat, who added public employees in New York will now have “all the protections that are out there in the private sector.”

Another measure sets up a toll-free hotline, where professionals at the Division of Human Rights can respond to complaints of sexual harassment in any workplace in the state, and connect victims with experienced attorneys to assist them in pursuing their cases.

Hochul’s predecessor, former Governor Andrew Cuomo, was never mentioned by name during the ceremony. But Cuomo’s resignation last August, after the state attorney general found he sexually harassed 11 women, paved the way for Hochul, then lieutenant governor, to become the state’s first female governor. The new laws will apply to governors and everyone else in state government.

Cuomo denies he did anything wrong.

Hochul alluded to the former governor when she touted her administration’s requirement that every employee attend in-person anti-sexual harassment training.

“I’ve also directed all of our employees to have anti-harassment training, everybody,” Hochul said. “That was not going on before. But, also I said and it’s going to be in-person. You know why? Because I know people just click through, right. Are they really paying attention? I want real accountability. I want everyone who calls themselves a state employee to have been trained in ant-harassment training.”

Cuomo was accused of skipping the then-mandatory online training for state employees and having his secretary do it instead. The former governor said he completed the training but had his aide sign his name to the form.

The third bill signed by Hochul stems directly from an occurrence that took place in the former Cuomo administration. It will now be a violation of the state’s Human Rights Law to retaliate against an accuser by publicly releasing their personnel files. Cuomo’s top aides and allies orchestrated a leak of former Cuomo aide Lindsey Boylan’s employment records, after Boylan said the former governor sexually harassed her on multiple occasions. The attorney general’s report confirmed those accusations.

Hochul was joined by advocates, including members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, made up of current and former state legislative aides who experienced or reported sexual harassment incidents in their workplaces. The group advocated for the new laws. Co-founder Tori Kelly, who worked for former state Assemblyman and serial sexual harasser Vito Lopez, says employees will have more protections now.

“I appreciate that the trauma that I have endured has now better informed our laws,” said Kelly, who added the new laws will help victims “trust the system and feel safe to bring their cases forward.”

The Sexual Harassment Working Group and others are pressing for passage of the Adult Survivors Act, modeled on the Child Victims Act, which gave survivors of childhood sexual abuse a one-year window of opportunity to take their alleged abusers to court. The bill would give adult survivors of sexual abuse and harassment the same rights to sue.

Hochul has said she’ll take the lead of the Legislature and sign the measure if it is approved. While it has passed the state Senate, it remains mired in the state Assembly.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.