Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2368 Wed, 16 Oct 2019 07:30:04 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) First City Agency Workplace-Climate Survey Under New Law Raises Questions, Concerns https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8541-first-city-agency-workplace-climate-survey-under-new-law-raises-questions-concerns https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8541-first-city-agency-workplace-climate-survey-under-new-law-raises-questions-concerns cm francisco moya

(photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


Last year, amid a national awakening about sexual harassment spurred by the #MeToo movement, the New York City Council passed a package of legislation. Among other things, it required the city to disclose more data about harassment claims and to undertake workplace climate surveys about harassment, discrimination, and other issues in order to create action plans and make improvements.

But the first climate survey results were recently delivered to the City Council and do not contain enough information to illuminate how different agencies handle the problem of harassment, said City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the Committee on Women and Gender Equity. Rosenthal, who helped lead the charge on the Stop Sexual Harassment Act bill package, told Gotham Gazette the initial climate survey results have prompted her to prepare legislation requiring agency-specific climate survey data.

The climate survey of city agencies was conducted by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), which provided its report to the mayor’s office and the City Council. Gotham Gazette obtained the five-page report through a Freedom of Information Law request.

The survey, which was voluntary for respondents and anonymized, looked at how familiar agency employees were with the city’s Equal Employment Opportunity policies and complaint process, whether they experienced or witnessed workplace discrimination, and also how aware supervisors and managers were of EEO processes.

Of the respondents, 32.4% were supervisors and managers; 59.5% identified as female; 85.5% said they were heterosexual. (The survey broke down the respondents by age, racial background, gender and sexual identity).

Overall, a majority of respondents (the report does not say how many were polled, the law only requires the survey to be offered to all employees) said they were familiar with EEO policies and had received training within the last year, that they had not personally experienced or witnessed discrimination of any type, and that their workplace was safe from EEO violations.

“I commend them for taking the first step,” Rosenthal said, “But..I’m disappointed that their takeaway thoughts are pretty light. It’s thin, it’s just thin.”

Pointing to the report’s general conclusions, she said, “The majority of respondents know the policies, did not personally experience [discrimination], and they indicate their work is safe. Well how do we even know what standard DCAS is comparing this to?”

Data released by the city earlier this year showed that the Department of Education accounted for a majority of sexual harassment complaints -- 186 out of 472 complaints filed in the 2018 fiscal year. What may be true of one agency, DCAS for instance, where there were only eight complaints filed, may not be true of the Department of Education. “So that’s just an out of context assertion that I dont think is valid,” Rosenthal said of the notion that the majority of respondents find their workplaces safe. “I’d like to see a little more rigor there.”

The Manhattan Democrat emphasized that the results are too general and occlude the differences between agencies. For instance, while only 9.6% of respondents said they had personally experienced sexual harassment at work, 14.2% said they had witnessed instances of sexual harassment.

“That could’ve been an interesting finding that they culled out, and say well what does that mean? What does that tell us? Does that mean that people are not reporting? That could be the takeaway. And that’s concerning.” Rosenthal said.

Responses about agency procedures and environments were also of concern to Rosenthal. Asked if their workplace was “safe and free of violations of the EEO policy,” 61.5% said they strongly agree or agree; 18.9% said they strongly disagree or disagree; and 19.7% were neutral on the question. “The truth of the matter is, that’s not a slam dunk for them,” Rosenthal said.

“I suppose if you had the information by agency, then you would see which agencies need a serious action plan,” she added.

Spokespersons for Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson did not provide comment on the results of the survey or whether they would support Rosenthal’s proposal to disaggregate data by agency. A spokesperson for de Blasio said “Sexual harassment has no place in the City of New York. The de Blasio Administration is committed to preventing sexual harassment – and all other forms of discrimination – inside and outside of the workplace. We look forward to reviewing the bill.”

About 92.4% of respondents said they were familiar with the city’s EEO policy and 84% said they knew how to file a formal complaint about an EEO violation. But only 57.4% said they knew how EEO complaints were processed after being filed. The report did acknowledge this last statistic, and concluded that more training and communication would be required to make employees more aware of the process after a complaint is submitted. Under the law, DCAS will be required to create an action plan to implement this change by the end of the year, with a report due on actions taken by March 31 of next year. Another survey will also be carried out in July 2020.

Besides sexual harassment, the survey also examined discrimination based on age, gender, racial and ethnic background, religious background, disability status, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, military status, partnership status, a category called “Predisposing Genetic Characteristics/Genetic Information,” prior record of arrest or conviction, and for victims of domestic violence.

Agencies generally performed well, save for a few major categories: about 16.8% of respondents said they had experienced racial or ethnic discrimination, while 20.8% said they had witnessed it; 11% said they experienced gender discrimination, and 13.2% said they had witnessed it; 10.5% said they experienced age discrimination, and 14.5% said they had witnessed it.

Here are a few of the other highlights of the survey:
-70.6% strongly agreed or agreed that their “rights are protected to pursue [their] duties in a respectful workplace”; 14.3% said they strongly disagree or disagree; 15.1% were neutral on the question.

-67.3% strongly agreed or agreed that they felt protected from workplace harassment; 16.2% said they strongly disagree or disagree; 16.6% were neutral on the question.

-61.1% strongly agreed or agreed that they are treated equally and fairly; 20.6% said they strongly disagree or disagree; 18.3% were neutral on the question.

-63.7% strongly agreed or agreed that steps are taken to prevent violations of the EEO policy; 13.8% said they strongly disagree or disagree; 22.5% were neutral on the question.

-59.7% strongly agreed or agreed that violations of EEO policy are taken seriously and investigated; 12.9% said they strongly disagree or disagree; 27.4% were neutral on the question.

-51.2% strongly agreed or agreed that adequate response is provided to those employees who have experienced and submitted claims of violations of EEO policy; 12% said they strongly disagree or disagree; 36.9% were neutral on the question.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been corrected to note that the Department of Education had the highest number of harassment complaints filed in 2018, not the Department of Investigation.

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First City Agency Workplace-Climate Survey Under New Law Raises Questions, Concerns Tue, 21 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Member Rosenthal Pursues Legislation to Create City Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8540-council-member-rosenthal-legislation-to-create-office-of-sexual-harassment-prevention https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8540-council-member-rosenthal-legislation-to-create-office-of-sexual-harassment-prevention cm h rosenthal during p

Council Member Rosenthal, center (photo: William Alatriste\New York City Council)


City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Committee on Women and Gender Equity, plans to introduce legislation to create an Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention within the mayor’s office, she told Gotham Gazette on Monday night.

Rosenthal, who recently spearheaded passage of sweeping anti-harassment legislation, made a request to draft Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention bill following a recent Gotham Gazette report about a 1993 executive order signed by former Mayor David Dinkins that would’ve created such an office, but was never put into effect.

“I think it’s an exciting idea,” Rosenthal said. “Let’s see where it would fit in to start and then what is its mission, what it would have authority over. There are a lot of important questions that have to be answered.” Those answers would come in both the bill-drafting and legislative hearing and negotiation phases.

[READ: A Citywide Office for Sexual Harassment Prevention? It Almost Happened 25 Years Ago]

In 1993, Dinkins signed an executive order to create the Citywide Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention on a pilot basis for two years. The order was a response to a sexual harassment scandal that led to the resignation of a top Dinkins aide, and followed a larger push by then-Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman to reform anti-sexual harassment policies at city agencies.

But the order was signed two weeks before Dinkins’ term ended, giving him insufficient time to implement it. His successor, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, did not put it into effect and the order lapsed.

Last year, amid the #MeToo movement, New York City officials woke to the issue of sexual harassment, and the City Council passed a slew of new bills aimed at improving how city agencies and the private sector deal with workplace harassment. Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the bills into law.

De Blasio’s administration then released data on instances of sexual harassment at agencies, and admitted to flaws in the standards for reporting and assessing harassment. The latest data released by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services showed that 472 complaints of sexual harassment were filed in the 2018 fiscal year, and 243 of those were resolved (569 complaints were resolved overall in that period).

Rosenthal has asked the Council’s bill drafting unit to begin creating the legislative framework for a mayoral office that would be dedicated to handling those complaints. Currently, sexual harassment falls under the purview of several agencies and commissions -- the Commission on Human Rights, the Commission on Gender Equity, the Equal Employment Practices Commission. But the CHR and the EEPC existed when Dinkins signed his executive order as well, and sexual harassment has far from ceased to be an issue despite their existence, which is why Rosenthal said a new agency or office would not be duplicative.

Rosenthal’s committee is set to hold a hearing to assess how, or whether, the administration has indeed stepped up enforcement against sexual harassment. (A hearing was scheduled for Wednesday, May 22, but has since been deferred. It’s unclear when it will be rescheduled.)

“I would guess the administration would say they’re [enforcing] it now and then in our hearing we’re gonna see whether or not they can demonstrate that,” Rosenthal said. 

To emphasize the need for a standalone office, she pointed to the Department of Education. Of the 472 sexual harassment complaints filed in the 2018 fiscal year, 186 complaints were at the DOE (which can in part be explained by the fact that the DOE has the largest number of city employees of any agency or department).

But, Rosenthal noted, DOE still has only one federal Title IX coordinator whose task it is to monitor complaints of discrimination based on sex, compared with a Title IX office of 20 people in Chicago, a much smaller city with a school system barely one-third the size of New York City’s. “If we had an office that was only looking at sexual harassment, and had we had that for the past 25 years, we’d be in a different spot,” she said.

There’s a long road ahead for any legislation, Rosenthal conceded, but she’s hoping she can introduce it before her committee holds its next hearing. Besides the usual delays in drafting most legislation, there’s likely to be thorny issues in the possibility of creating an entirely new office with a mission that overlaps with other agencies. But Rosenthal says her effort is not merely symbolic. “I wouldn’t want it to be,” she said. “If all it’s going to be is a symbolic gesture, then that’s not meaningful.”

Asked about Rosenthal's pursuit of the legislation, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, Marcy Miranda, said by email: “Sexual harassment has no place in the City of New York. The de Blasio Administration is committed to preventing sexual harassment – and all other forms of discrimination – inside and outside of the workplace. We look forward to reviewing the bill.”

A spokesperson for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson did not provide comment for this article.

[READ: A Citywide Office for Sexual Harassment Prevention? It Almost Happened 25 Years Ago]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Council Member Rosenthal Pursues Legislation to Create City Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention Tue, 21 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
A Citywide Office for Sexual Harassment Prevention? It Almost Happened 25 Years Ago https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8508-a-citywide-office-for-sexual-harassment-prevention-it-almost-happened-25-years-ago https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8508-a-citywide-office-for-sexual-harassment-prevention-it-almost-happened-25-years-ago mayor chirlane david

Former Mayor David Dinkins, left, with Chirlane McCray (photo: Edwin J. Torres/City Council)


In October 1992, amid sexual harassment scandals that rocked his administration, former Mayor David Dinkins created a task force to examine the issue of sexual harassment in city government. The task force, chaired by late Congressional Rep. Bella Abzug, who led the larger Commission on the Status of Women, submitted its report to the mayor the next year in November, recommending that the city create a Citywide Office for Sexual Harassment Prevention.

The following month, in December 1993 and just two weeks before his mayoralty ended, Dinkins heeded the recommendation and signed an executive order to establish that citywide office as a pilot for two years.

The office was to advise and counsel city employees on sexual harassment issues, as well as mediate when allegations were made. It would be mandated to investigate formal complaints of harassment and discrimination, and recommend disciplinary measures. It was to monitor how city agencies dealt with harassment, evaluate the effectiveness of harassment trainings for employees, and be required to submit quarterly reports on its work to the mayor. And it was to maintain a central repository of formal and informal sexual harassment complaints.

But as administrations switched, Dinkins’ eleventh-hour executive order was lost to the pages of the municipal archives -- the Citywide Office for Sexual Harassment Prevention was never established. The Rudolph Giuliani administration does not seem to have paid any attention to the executive order, which lapsed after its two-year lifespan without being specifically rescinded.

Twenty-five years later, the #MeToo movement’s focus on addressing sexual harassment triggered a cultural paradigm shift across the country and beyond. The New York City Council took stock and passed the Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act, a package of 11 new laws to prevent sexual harassment in the public and private sector, through a push led by Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the Committee on Women and Gender Equity.

New York State also passed similar legislation last year to address sexual harassment, and more recently held its first public hearing on workplace harassment in nearly three decades, with additional change to the law being pushed by advocates and victims this year and another hearing scheduled for May 24.

A spokesperson for former Mayor Dinkins, who currently teaches at Columbia University, said there was insufficient time to implement the order before his term ended.

“I’ve never heard of it and I’ve been around in almost every administration since,” said Dr. Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, who served as former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s director of the Department of Personnel, under whom the citywide sexual harassment prevention office would have been established under the order. “In retrospect, it would’ve been a wonderful thing. It’s a horrible thing for any human being to go through those kinds of things.”

When Giuliani came to power, Barrios-Paoli said the administration’s immediate focus was civil service reform and drastically cutting down the city’s workforce. “I don’t recall [the sexual harassment office] ever coming up with me,” she said, lamenting the lost time on addressing the issue. In city leadership, she said, “There was so little awareness of that those days. The consciousness was just not there.”

“I don’t think there was a woman that was exempt. We didn’t think there was any recourse,” she said of harassment in the workplace. “What happens in the change of administration is a lot of things fall by the wayside unless they have a champion.”

The creation of Dinkins’ task force led by Abzug owed largely to the efforts of former Congressional Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who was City Comptroller during Dinkins’ term and attempted to examine sexual harassment policies in city agencies only to find a dearth of information.

Only two agencies responded to Holtzman’s requests for information, the Department of Transportation and the Fire Department, and they woefully misunderstood and mishandled the issue of sexual harassment, Holtzman said in a phone interview. “Both responses showed that neither agency understood what the legal requirements were, how to enforce the law and...the people who were victimized by sexual harassment were revictimized by reporting and the people who were perpetrators were allowed to get away with, at worst, a slap on the wrist,” she said.

The glaring lack of a standard across agencies should have invited “a major citywide response,” she said, and Dinkins’ executive order came much too late. “I’m not surprised about Mr. Giuliani’s indifference to sexual harassment. We can see that from his present employment. But I am surprised that both Mayor Bloomberg and Mayor de Blasio have turned a deaf ear to it as well. It’s not a good sign,” Holtzman added, with reference to Giuliani’s work for President Trump, who has a history of misogyny and was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.

“It just shows how important the MeToo movement is and it shows that nobody’s exempt, including the City of New York,” Holtzman continued, “and even though it wants to tell the country how liberal and progressive it is, the fact of the matter is that when it comes to sexual harassment, they’ve got a lot to account for.”

That accounting is meant to happen under the package of bills the Council passed, which include requirements for reporting on sexual harassment within city government, mandated anti-harassment trainings at city agencies and private employers, and required climate surveys and action plans from city agencies, besides strengthening existing anti-harassment protections.

Merrick Rossein, professor at CUNY School of Law, served on Dinkins’ sexual harassment task force and was also a commissioner on the Equal Employment Practices Commission under both Dinkins and Giuliani. “I do not recall if the Office was functioning by the time Giuliani took office in January 1994. He was hostile to all [Equal Employment Opportunity] enforcement,” Rossein said in an email.   

“The City was an early leader in addressing sexual harassment, including mandating training,” he added, noting that he conducted interactive sexual harassment trainings for Dinkins, his deputy mayors and the corporation counsel to show that the city was taking the issue seriously.

“The City should have followed through by establishing the recommended Citywide office. There have been too many cases of sexual harassment from that period until the #MeToo movement and the recent City Council legislation. Too many victims were harmed and tax payers were on the hook for the millions of dollars in settlements, court awards, and lost productivity caused by the disruption of failing to prevent or stop the harassment effectively. The recent legislation is helpful but still insufficient.”

As Rossein noted, the citywide office would have tackled many of the issues that became apparent in city government once the #MeToo movement pushed the New York City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to look inward at their own approach to a systemic problem.

After the passage of the Stop Sexual Harassment Act last year, the mayor released what data was available on the number of harassment complaints across city government, showing glaring discrepancies in how different agencies approached the issue. The mayor himself conceded that “what’s abundantly clear is there was not a single standard for ‘mayoral’ and ‘non-mayoral’ agencies.” Though de Blasio also downplayed complaints that had come through the Department of Education, remarks he later walked back, and has more recently faced intense scrutiny over his administration’s handling of harassment by his former acting chief of staff.

"Mayor Dinkins was a visionary leader who understood the importance of taking a stand against sexual harassment decades before the Me Too movement, and his executive order was a prime example. The spirit of this order lives on under the de Blasio Administration," said mayoral spokesperson Marcy Miranda in a statement. "Last year, the Mayor signed the Stop Sexual Harassment Act to address and prevent sexual harassment, and we continue looking at ways the City can improve its processes to reduce sexual harassment and all forms of EEO discrimination at work."

Council Member Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Committee on Women and Gender Equity, led the way on the Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act and was shocked to learn that the city could have acted aggressively so long ago through Dinkins’ order. “What we’ve learned from the MeToo movement is that with focused attention on sexual harassment and experiences of sexual harassment, we are in the midst of changing the cultural tide that allows sexual harassment to continue,” she said. “I can only imagine how much farther along we would be if the...Giuliani administration would have implemented this executive order.”

Dinkins created his task force soon after his own office came under scrutiny for appointing a new deputy mayor who faced allegations of sexual harassment. Dinkins later defended the deputy mayor who would then resign from his post.

Now, the City Council is preparing to hold another hearing on sexual harassment policies next month, where it will examine the implementation of the laws passed last year. Rosenthal said she is waiting to hear if the mayoral administration is “resisting or embracing” the new policies. The Council is currently dealing with sexual harassment allegations against two of its members, and held a mandatory training on Wednesday at City Hall, which was, according to the Daily News, marred by outbursts from another member, Ruben Diaz Sr., who later told the Daily News that sometimes "sexual harassment is a compliment."

Asked if a citywide office would be worth creating, she said the Council would likely receive pushback from the administration. The Equal Employment Practices Commission and the city Commission on Human Rights both currently handle enforcement of laws against sexual harassment, and it’s possible a new agency would be duplicative, Rosenthal noted. But, she said, “I think we have to learn more from our reporting bills to see whether or not the administration is following through on our set of bills that we passed.”

Holtzman praised Rosenthal’s legislation and the overall package the Council approved, but she nonetheless believes the city needs a dedicated office to tackle sexual harassment. “It’s one thing to have reports and it’s another thing to have a commission that has its responsibility rooting out this problem,” she said. “Unless they can show it’s not a problem, why not?”

She continued, “You need to have a proper administrative structure. I remember when I was trying to deal with the problem of Nazi war criminals in America, the government had done nothing about them for more than 25 years and they were finding sanctuary in the United States. I did create an administrative structure in the Department of Justice, which had that as its mission. You have to give an agency a mission and monitor that agency to make sure it carries out that mission, and instead the message was to all city agencies, it’s not a serious problem.”

At the April 25, 2018 news conference when Mayor de Blasio, who worked in City Hall under Dinkins, addressed reporters’ questions about sexual harassment complaints, he noted that the #MeToo movement was leading to a sea change in city government. “So one thing that has come out of this very important movement, this emerged from a social movement in this country that demanded clearer answers from every segment of this society, is we’re aligning all standards on sexual harassment across all agencies,” he said. “And I think that’s going to make a big difference.”

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: The Long Fight for New City Sexual Harassment Laws, with Liz Holtzman and Helen Rosenthal]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note - This article has been updated with comment from a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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A Citywide Office for Sexual Harassment Prevention? It Almost Happened 25 Years Ago Wed, 08 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Member Grodenchik Faces Formal Consequences for Harassment of Aide https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8428-council-member-grodenchik-faces-formal-consequences-for-harassment-of-aide https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8428-council-member-grodenchik-faces-formal-consequences-for-harassment-of-aide nyccouncil grod

Council Member Grodenchik (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


New York City Council Member Barry Grodenchik, a Democrat from Queens, will face formal disciplinary charges after a complaint of sexual harassment against him was found to be credible by the Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics on Thursday.

Council Member Steven Matteo, chair of the standards and ethics committee, announced at a hearing Thursday afternoon that the committee would initiate formal disciplinary proceedings against Grodenchik regarding Section 10.80 of the Council’s rules, specifically in relation to anti-discrimination and harassment.

According to Matteo, the complaint against Grodenchik alleged that the Council member “paid unwelcome attention” to a Council aide over the course of a year, including making comments about her weight and repeatedly greeting her with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. In one instance, at a work meeting with several other people present, Grodenchik allegedly blew a kiss at the staffer and, when the meeting ended, walked around the table to give only her a hug and kiss on the cheek.

In a statement prior to the hearing, Grodenchik appeared to reference only the last incident, though without full details, and apologized. “It is never my intention to make any person feel uncomfortable, and I sincerely apologize if my actions had that effect,” he said. “For me, as is true for many of my colleagues, a hug is a common greeting for people I have known for a long time, but as others do not feel that way, I will certainly be more sensitive to that in the future.”

Grodenchik said he had decades of exemplary public service, including working under “four amazing and strong women. Those women included an Assemblywoman and three Presidents of the Borough of Queens.”

He also stated that Council Speaker Corey Johnson had “decided that I should be punished by being stripped of my Chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee,” which he said was “an over-reaction, with an excessive punishment that is harmful to this body.”

But Johnson’s office said no action had been taken to remove Grodenchik as chair of the committee, as he claimed. “No one should ever be made to feel uncomfortable in the workplace and singled out for unwanted attention,” Johnson said in a statement. “The Standards & Ethics Committee investigated and deliberated over this matter very carefully. In light of their decision to formally charge Council Member Grodenchik and launch disciplinary proceedings against him, I am immediately removing him from the Budget Negotiating Team, pending the results of the disciplinary hearing.”

Following the Thursday hearing, the standards and ethics committee will issue a “formal notice of charges” to Grodenchik, who appeared before them in a closed session earlier in the day. Further deliberations and a vote on the charges will happen in a closed-door session, Matteo said, before a report is issued. If the committee finds that Grodenchik must be sanctioned, its recommendations will be sent to the full Council for a vote.

The committee also dismissed one other matter on Thursday regarding allegations against a member who allegedly asked a staffer to participate in political activities. The committee ruled the claim “unsubstantiated” and closed the matter. The committee has been particularly busy in this session, and there appear to be multiple ongoing investigations into alleged wrongdoing by Council members. Speaker Johnson has said this is in part because he is quick to refer complaints to the committee rather than attempting to resolve them internally.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council Member Grodenchik Faces Formal Consequences for Harassment of Aide Thu, 04 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: A Hearing on Sexual Harassment in Albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8286-max-murphy-podcast-a-hearing-on-sexual-harassment-in-albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8286-max-murphy-podcast-a-hearing-on-sexual-harassment-in-albany mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


February 13, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: A Hearing on Sexual Harassment in Albany, with Rita Pasarell of the Sexual Harassment Working Group

rita pasarell wbai 150Rita Pasarell was a victim of sexual harassment as a legislative aide and has more recently been an advocate pushing the state to hold public hearings on sexual harassment and improve its laws to combat the scourge in the public and private sectors. After much advocacy, the state Legislature held its first hearing in decades on Wednesday February 13. Pasarell and her colleagues were among those to testify. She joined the show to discuss the hearing and related issues.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: A Hearing on Sexual Harassment in Albany Wed, 13 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Hochul Asserts Previously Unmentioned Role in Anti-Sexual Harassment Laws https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7905-hochul-asserts-previously-unmentioned-role-in-anti-sexual-harassment-laws https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7905-hochul-asserts-previously-unmentioned-role-in-anti-sexual-harassment-laws Kathy Hochul

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (photo: The Governor's Office)


Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul on Wednesday said she was “very much involved” in the recently signed laws aimed at combating sexual harassment in the workplace — a claim that comes in stark contrast to all prior indications that the legislation had been determined exclusively by four elected men and no elected women.

“I was used as a resource, as someone who has lived this experience personally, which is why I’m so passionate about standing up for women,” Hochul said while debating her Democratic primary challenger, City Council Member Jumaane Williams.

“I was there helping chart the course that the state ended up adopting,” she added, responding to a question from Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max, who moderated the debate hosted by Manhattan Neighborhood Network.

Following the debate, Hochul told a group of reporters that her “views were taken into consideration” in the legislation, adding context to the apparent debate revelation, which came after months of criticism aimed at Governor Andrew Cuomo, Hochul’s running-mate, and legislative leaders, over a lack of public hearings and female input on the legislation.

Throughout the race and the debate, Hochul has fended off criticism from Williams — an insurgent running to the lieutenant governor’s left on most issues while promising to reinvent the position if elected — who argues her role has in practice been merely a ceremonial ribbon-cutting one. She said Wednesday that not only has she had a hand in a variety of policy work, but that ribbon-cuttings should not be denigrated, given that they show something positive happening that benefits constituents.

Although the state’s new anti-sexual harassment laws have been heavily touted by Cuomo, Hochul and their allies, there has been ongoing criticism that they were passed without the direct input of elected women or harassment victims. Instead, the behind-closed-doors negotiations involved four elected men: Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Senator Jeff Klein, then-leader of the now-defunct Senate Independent Democratic Conference, who has been accused by a former staffer of forcibly kissing her.

In the lead-up to those final negotiations before the larger state budget deal of which the anti-harassment bills were a part, Cuomo’s office had said that Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat and the only woman leader of a legislative conference, would be included in the talks on harassment prevention. But she was not. Amid criticism, neither the governor nor anyone from his team publicly indicated that Hochul had been involved.

Chief among the critics of the process and product was the Sexual Harassment Working Group — a new coalition of seven women who have alleged facing sexual harassment or abuse while working in state government. One of the women, Rita Pasarell, told Gotham Gazette on Thursday that she had “not heard of Lieutenant Governor Hochul's involvement until her recent statements.” Pasarell said she “would like to hear more about what specific parts of the law she advocated for and how she believes these will help workers.”

“I would also like to know if she has spoken to any victims who have reported sexual harassment at work, including government workers,” she added. “While the 2018 laws make some progress, there is much room for improvement.”

She said, extent of Hochul’s role in the process aside, it would be no substitute for a “transparent public vetting for legislation.”

“We need to create victim-informed laws by listening to workers across industries, in public hearings,” Pasarell said.

For her part, Senator Stewart-Cousins, who was briefed on discussions but not included in them, said in June on the Max & Murphy podcast that it was “strange” to her that she did not have a seat at the table when the legislation was being drafted.

“As the only elected woman leader, and the only elected woman leader that has led a conference in the history of New York State, during this #MeToo moment, you would have thought you would have been able to get in a room and at least let her say something,” she continued. “Never happened.”

This line of criticism prompted pushback from some in the governor’s office, who noted that there were female aides who had a hand in crafting the sexual harassment legislation.

“Actually, I am in the room-along w other top female aides to the Senate & Assembly,” Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide, tweeted in late March, attempting to throw cold water on the assertion that no women were involved in the legislative process. “It’s sad, though not entirely surprising, that even when a woman like me is in the room helping to lead the charge, some only see a room full of men.”

There was no mention of Hochul.

Asked for more explanation the day after the Hochul-Williams debate, Haley Viccaro, a spokesperson for Hochul, described the lieutenant governor’s role in informing the anti-sexual harassment legislation.

"The Lieutenant Governor often meets with women across New York and discusses issues important to them. Of course in the #MeToo era, sexual harassment is a topic that's unavoidable,” she said Thursday in a statement. “As she said, she was used as a resource as someone who has lived with this experience personally, which is why she is so passionate about standing up for women all across this country who have been silenced by men who have abused their power.”

Viccaro went on to say that Hochul was “most focused” on ensuring that the sexual harassment policy applied to both public and private employers.

“The Lieutenant Governor feels strongly that all New Yorkers deserve to have a safe and harassment-free workplace, and she has been very vocal that there must be a standard that reflects our seismic societal shift to a culture that treats men and women equally," she said.

In a statement, Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Governor Cuomo, echoed the sentiment expressed by the lieutenant governor during Wednesday’s debate.

“The Lieutenant Governor’s leadership and partnership in advocating for causes important to women across the state has been indispensable,” she said, “including her strong advocacy for extending the state’s sexual harassment model policies to private employers which will make workplaces safer for all New Yorkers.”

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Hochul Asserts Previously Unmentioned Role in Anti-Sexual Harassment Laws Thu, 30 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo and Legislative Leaders Silent Amid Intensifying Calls for Sexual Harassment Hearings https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7845-cuomo-and-legislative-leaders-silent-amid-intensifying-calls-for-sexual-harassment-hearings https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7845-cuomo-and-legislative-leaders-silent-amid-intensifying-calls-for-sexual-harassment-hearings Cuomo Women's Equality Act presser 2013

Gov. Cuomo in 2013 (photo: The Governor's Office)


As part of the #MeToo movement, a group of women who experienced sexual harassment or abuse while working in New York state government have for months been advocating for public hearings on the culture that enables that misconduct in government, especially the state capital, and in the private sector. Their calls have intensified -- and been echoed by prominent women running for state elected offices this year -- after Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders passed new anti-harassment laws without any public hearings and without going far enough, according to the women.

Those calls have fallen on deaf ears from the men who control state government, however, with Cuomo touting the new laws as the “strongest in the nation” as he seeks a third term and leaders of the Assembly and Senate, including one accused of forcibly kissing an aide, largely remaining silent.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group, seven women who launched the #HarassmentFreeAlbany movement, have criticized the Democratic governor and bi-partisan Legislature for passing an inadequate package of anti-sexual harassment legislation in this year’s budget, agreed upon in late March. The policies were negotiated by Cuomo, Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Senator Jeff Klein, then-leader of the Independent Democratic Conference that has since rejoined the mainline Democrats.

The criticism that the “four men in a room” had for years epitomized the opacity of state budget negotiations was made all the more stark by the fact that they decided how to tackle sexual harassment without hearings, without significant consultation with female legislators -- including the lone woman to lead a legislative conference, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who had been promised a seat at the table -- and without those who had been subject to harassment or abuse, as well as the glaring inclusion of Klein, who was accused earlier this year of forcibly kissing a staffer in 2015 outside an Albany bar. Klein’s accuser, Erica Vladimer is among the members of The Sexual Harassment Working Group.   

In consultation with experts, the group has issued a set of recommendations for enacting stronger anti-harassment protections and have been joined in their cause by the likes of Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who is running for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, and actor and activist Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Cuomo in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, along with rank-and-file state legislators and other advocates.

At a news conference in Manhattan on Wednesday, August 1, Vladimer, other members of the group, and Zenaida Mendez, former President of NOW New York, appeared with Nixon, urging Cuomo to take action.

“It’s time to stop putting politics over human rights,” Vladimer said, “and the first way we can do that is with public hearings...where workers from every industry -- government, retail, food service, hospitality -- can be heard by those we elect to legislatie on our behalf and those who are appointed to enforce those protections.”

Nixon, running to be the first woman elected governor of New York, issued scathing remarks against Cuomo. “New Yorkers deserve better than a governor who ignores victims and chooses instead to protect and sometimes even promote those accused of harassment and worse,” she said. The first-time candidate recently released a video ad that cut back-and-forth between footage of Cuomo and President Donald Trump using similar rhetoric that smacks of ‘toxic masculinity.’

In an editorial for the Albany Times Union on Friday, two members of the group, Leah Hebert and Rita Pasarell, who were subjected to harassment by former Assemblymember Vito Lopez when they worked in his office, criticized Cuomo for his “strongest in the nation” claim about New York’s new anti-sexual harassment laws.

“[E]ven after accounting for rhetorical hyperbole in an election year, the new measures fall far short of what's needed,” Hebert and Pasarell wrote. “They lack teeth for enforcement. They fail to address many obstacles that prevent victims from seeking redress in court. They do nothing to fix the pervasive abuse in Albany, highlighted by more than 100 current and former state employees in an open letter. These new measures were passed in the same way gender-based harassment and discrimination often happen: behind closed doors.” 

They noted how the New York City Council recently passed its own set of bills on sexual harassment after holding hearings to solicit testimony from those affected by it and from experts. The Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act included almost a dozen bills that were crafted after multiple hours-long hearings of the Council’s Committee on Women and the Committee on Civil and Human Rights. The bills, signed into law by the mayor, mandated, among other things, anti-sexual harassment trainings at city agencies and in private businesses, increased transparency from agencies on harassment complaints, stronger protections under the city’s human rights law, and added reporting requirements for city contractors.

Besides the open and very public process compared with how the new state policies were created, the city laws appear to be somewhat more expansive. The state policies require state contractors to provide anti-harassment training to all employees, prohibit mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment complaints, ban non-disclosure agreements unless a victim demands one, and extend harassment protections to non-traditional employees such as freelanders, contractors, and vendors. A broader model policy is still due from the state Division of Human Rights, which is meant to apply across the public and private sectors.

Cuomo, Heastie, and Flanagan, on the other hand, have shown no indication that they are listening. Spokespeople for all three officials did not respond to, or even acknowledge, requests for comment from Gotham Gazette about why there have been no public hearings, whether they are open to the idea, or if they had reviewed the recommendations put out by the Sexual Harassment Working Group. A Cuomo spokesperson told Gotham Gazette in late June that the administrations did “look forward to reviewing these recommendations,” but there’s no indication that has happened.

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, the Republican nominee for governor, also backed the call for public hearings on Thursday. “I pledge to insist on such hearings in Albany next year, should I be honored to be elected governor in November,” he said. “Albany’s culture will change. The coverups we have seen under Andrew Cuomo’s tenure are inexcusable and wrong.”

Molinaro, Nixon, and other Cuomo opponents and critics have also been seizing on recent revelations reported by the Albany Times Union around how victims of sexual harassment have been treated within the broader executive branch.

In the attorney general race, Teachout has been vocal about using the office’s power, if she is elected, to investigate sexual harassment, even in the private sector if it happens under her jurisdiction. Teachout also joined the Sexual Harassment Working Group when they were in Albany last month pressing their demands.

“The idea that New York State — in the middle of a national #TimesUp movement, after the Harvey Weinstein scandal, after all these scandals — that New York has not fixed its own problem is a total shame and disaster and suggests that our old boys club isn’t only covering up corruption but also covering up sexual misconduct,” Teachout said at the news conference, Politico New York reported. She urged her three Democratic primary opponents to join the calls for hearings and improved laws.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, also running for attorney general, has called for a “full-scale investigation” into harassment in state government. Leecia Eve, a former Cuomo and Hillary Clinton aide now running for attorney general, also supports holding hearings, according to a campaign spokesperson.

Delaney Kempner, a campaign spokesperson for Public Advocate Letitia James, who is the State Democratic Party’s preferred candidate for attorney general and has cross-endorsed with Cuomo, sent a statement to Gotham Gazette that touted work James has done co-sponsoring legislation on mandatory sexual harassment training and reporting, and advocating against forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts.

But the statement did not indicate whether James supports the call for hearings on sexual harassment in state government and beyond or believes that the new state laws passed are sufficient. “It is clear that our laws have not protected women in the workforce from harassment and abuse, both in Albany and across the state…,” Kempner said. “We must improve our laws and change our culture. As Attorney General, Tish will continue to stand up for the women of New York and investigate anyone who seeks to abuse or harass us. That is how we make lasting change.”

[Read: Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Cuomo and Legislative Leaders Silent Amid Intensifying Calls for Sexual Harassment Hearings Mon, 06 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The Long Fight for New City Sexual Harassment Laws https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7767-max-murphy-podcast-the-long-fight-for-new-city-sexual-harassment-laws https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7767-max-murphy-podcast-the-long-fight-for-new-city-sexual-harassment-laws mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


June 25, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Long Fight for New City Sexual Harassment Laws, with City Council Member Helen Rosenthal and former Comptroller, Brooklyn District Attorney and Congressional Rep. Liz Holtzman

rosenthal holtzman pod 277

When Liz Holtzman was city Comptroller -- the first and only woman to hold that office -- she sought to determine city agency policies around sexual harassment and was met with resistance. Twenty-five years later amid the #MeToo movement, Holtzman wrote a Daily News op-ed in February of this year that recounted her experience and discussed the need to make public city policies and data on harassment complaints. That op-ed helped spur City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the Council's Committee on Women, to jumpstart an effort that led to an 11-bill package of legislation, now law, to prevent and punish sexual harassment, both in city government and the private sector.

Holtzman and Rosenthal joined the podcast to discuss their efforts, the details of the new laws, what comes next, and much more about fighting harassment, assault, and gender discrimination -- including Holtzman's work as the first woman elected to become one of the city's district attorneys.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy with @HelenRosenthal and Liz Holtzman. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The Long Fight for New City Sexual Harassment Laws Mon, 25 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7764-pointing-to-deficiencies-victims-call-for-changes-to-state-s-new-sexual-harassment-policies https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7764-pointing-to-deficiencies-victims-call-for-changes-to-state-s-new-sexual-harassment-policies gov cuomo bill clinton electoral

(photo via the Governor's Office)


The problem of sexual harassment in New York state politics is systemic and plaguing young women beginning their careers, according to a group fighting to change the culture and the laws around the issue. And, they argue that recently adopted state measures to fight the scourge are insufficient, despite being touted by Governor Andrew Cuomo as “the best in the nation.”

The seven women of The Sexual Harassment Working Group -- all of whom have been personally affected by sexual harassment while working for lawmakers in the New York State Legislature -- have consulted a handful of advocacy and legal groups, and called upon their own experiences and expertise, to put together a detailed report with recommendations for ways to better protect women working in government.

“We wonder why there aren’t women in higher office, we wonder why women are so underrepesented in our legislature and in all levels of our government. And this is a big part of why: It does not feel safe to work in government if you’re a woman,” co-author Eliyanna Kaiser, a one-time chief of staff to former Assemblymember Micah Kellner, said during an event in Manhattan on June 19. Kaiser was not herself directly a victim of sexual harassment, but instead reported to Bill Collins in the Assembly Counsel's office, under former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, that Kellner had been sending inappropriate messages to one of his staffers, which led to initial inaction, attacks against Kaiser, and, eventually, Kellner’s ouster from the state Legislature.

Also on the panel were working group members and co-authors Danielle Bennett, former administrative assistant to Kellner who reported his harassment to Kaiser; Leah Hebert, former chief of staff to the late, disgraced Assemblymember Vito Lopez; Tori Burhans Kelly, former legislative aide to Lopez; Rita Pasarell, former legislative counsel and deputy chief of staff to Lopez; Erica Vladimer, former education policy analyst and counsel for the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC); and Elizabeth Crothers, former legislative aide in the New York State Assembly who publicly accused Assembly lawyer Michael Boxley of rape in 2003, two years after the alleged incident and when another victim of Boxley’s came forward. The discussion was moderated by political consultant and columnist Alexis Grenell, who has helped bring to light victims’ experiences as well as the insufficient responses from government officials.

The stories of these women run together in a horror plot that involves countless obstacles to reporting, near-dismissal, and a reluctance to investigate from those in charge, as well as forcibly implemented nondisclosure agreements that hinder the complainant's chances of reemployment and their ability to warn others.

“I agreed not to file a civil suit in exchange for [him to get] a HIV test,” Crothers said, adding the “loss of anonymity” after going public “follows you.”

“I really didn’t think there was another way out aside from suicide,” said Hebert, who was one of the first women to complain about Lopez groping and harassing female staffers, of her experience.

“These things that are happening are not the product of an individual harasser, they’re not mistakes,” Pasarell, another complainant against Lopez, added. “It’s massive, it’s systemic, and whenever I hear a new person coming out I say, ‘hey remember us, remember this happened to us in 2012?’”

It’s a cycle that exploits women and protects men who behave abhorrently and, as Grenell pointed out, it’s a reality yet unchanged by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s claims that New York has the “strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual harassment protections in the nation” following the recent budget, wherein the anti-harassment legislation was passed. Grenell compared the governor’s statement to the “mission accomplished sign” former President George W. Bush stood in front of during 2003 remarks about the war in Iraq, only two months after the U.S. first invaded.

The Working Group is calling for Cuomo to hold public hearings to listen to victims of sexual harassment -- as its members demanded before the policies were decided by all-male leadership with little apparent regard for the opinions of victims. The group’s Harassment-Free Albany website states: “New York State has not held a state hearing on sexual harassment since Governor Mario Cuomo [Andrew Cuomo’s father] created a Sexual Harassment Task Force in 1992.”

The reporting system has no transparency for complainants, limited uniformity, and an obvious lack of objectivity, the panel urges. For example, when Vladimer, who this January publicly accused now-Deputy Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein of kissing her forcibly and against her will outside a bar in 2015, was asked where her case is at now, she said she has no idea.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Vladimer told event attendees on Tuesday. “[It’s with] the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics [JCOPE], which under some very vague executive law somehow has the authority to investigate sexual harassment claims. There are no experts on this commission and the commissioners who vote to decide whether or not there is wrongdoing are all appointed by elected officials.” They are also almost all men, with one woman in 14 commissioners.

“I don’t know where my investigation is and I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ve talked about is that there is no transparency and I know, and have been told, I don’t have a right to know where my investigation’s going,” Vladimer added.

When Vladimer went public, Klein immediately denied the allegations, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said the Senate would not investigate given no formal complaint had been lodged with its internal staff. Klein himself asked JCOPE to investigate, but other than Klein indicating an investigation had commenced, there is little information to go by.

In the lead-up to the new state budget, Cuomo had called for sweeping anti-sexual harassment policies, including greater resources for and transparency in JCOPE investigations. While Cuomo pushed through some measures, those JCOPE recommendations were not among what was passed into law.

The same Klein accused of sexually harassing Vladimer was one of the three other elected men, and no elected women, who assisted Cuomo in deciding the sexual harassment legislation this March, ahead of the annual budget. According to the budget, there are five measures designed to address sexual harassment in state politics -- as the governor’s office puts it, to “further build upon his 2018 Women’s Agenda for New York.”

In a press release announcing highlights of the new budget in March, Cuomo said, "We put into place the strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual harassment protections in the nation, ending once and for all the secrecy and coercive practices that have enabled this unacceptable behavior for far too long.”

Under the new legislation, all employers working with the state, including vendors and contractors, must implement a written policy addressing sexual harassment prevention and provide prevention training to all employees. This is an extension of a previously-existing law to include contracted workers, and means that employers may now be held liable for the sexual harassment of non-employees if the employer knew, or should have known, of the harassment and failed to take action. It does not, however, address the ambiguity around employees of elected officials.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group is recommending the definition of “employee” be changed to clearly include employees of elected and appointed officials, and that the New York State Human Rights Law should stipulate elected officials are also considered “employers.”

“Our recommendation is to specify employees as everybody -- essentially someone for hire -- this is how the labor law defines it and we just want every worker to have the same protection, including staff of elected officials,” Pasarell told Tuesday night’s event.

In the new legislation, New York employers are prohibited from requiring mandatory arbitration of claims of workplace sexual harassment, except where inconsistent with federal law, and this will come into effect in July.

Any officers and employees of the state or any public entity who is subject to a final judgement of personal liability in cases of sexual harassment will have to reimburse the state for the award given to the complainant, however the Sexual Harassment Working Group points out this is only applicable for cases determined by a judge, not necessarily to those settled out of court.

Cuomo’s legislation also states no employer has the authority to include or agree to include in any settlement a nondisclosure agreement, unless the condition of confidentiality is the complainant’s preference. And, notably, a model sexual harassment guidance document and a sexual harassment prevention policy is to be created with the Division of Human Right by October -- meaning a key portion of the new policy is not yet written.

“This year, Governor Cuomo signed the strongest anti-sexual harassment policy in the country,” Dani Lever, press secretary for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette in a statement. “It closed gaping loopholes that entrapped women in toxic workplaces, extended protections to contracted workers, and strengthened rules that prevent companies from shirking their responsibility to root out bad actors—instead of sweeping problems under-the-rug.”

On the surface, all measures included in the enacted budget appear to go a long way towards exactly what the governor is promising but, according to the panel of women who’ve experienced sexual harassment in state politics first-hand, there are some areas of ambiguity that impede the path to reporting and justice for potential victims.

First, the budget hasn’t defined “sexual harassment” and the way the issue is currently treated under state law leaves much room for interpretation. The Sexual Harassment Working Group recommends adding “sex and gender” to the list of classes protected from discrimination in the New York State Constitution, to offer another level of protection for all New Yorkers, including victims. And the authors suggest the current standard for behavior to qualify as sexual harassment in state law -- that it must be “severe or pervasive” -- be changed to mirror the recent changes to New York City law, where the standard for discrimination and harassment reads simply that the person is treated “less well.”

“When you’re talking about standards in law, the ‘litigative itch,’ as they call it, is all in these terms,” Kaiser said. “People are always going to bicker about the actual event that happened. We’d prefer that bickering to be asking, ‘didn’t he treat her less well?’ Rather than, ‘was it severe and pervasive?’”

The working group is also calling for an independent body to oversee all discrimination harassment policy enforcement. At the moment, JCOPE members are appointed by state elected officials. Of the 14 members, three are appointed by the Temporary President of the Senate, three are appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly, one is appointed by the Minority Leader of the Senate, one is appointed by the Minority Leader of the Assembly, and six are appointed by the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor.

Many of the stories from the women in The Sexual Harassment Working Group involve some level of disbelief from those charged with investigating their reports of sexual harassment. In Crothers’ case, it wasn’t only disbelief, it was outright protection of her alleged attacker.

“Before it came out in the press and when I met with the speaker [Sheldon Silver], I didn’t feel he didn’t believe me, he just said ‘well I won’t let him go out to bars anymore and my first priority is protecting the institution,’” Crothers said at the panel event. Silver resigned as speaker in 2015 after being arrested on federal corruption charges, and long after being accused of facilitating former Assemblymember Lopez’s harassment of eight women who were on his staff. The panelists believe this culture of cover-up and protection will continue unless there is an independent body appointed to investigate, and determine, reports of sexual misconduct in Albany.

It’s the Lopez example that best shows the need for further restrictions around the use of nondisclosure agreements, beyond what is outlined in the new legislation. Two of the women in the working group, who were on the panel, ultimately signed nondisclosure agreements after accusing the former Assembly member of sexual harassment and groping. They said they didn’t want a nondisclosure agreement -- it wasn’t implemented to protect their privacy -- but it was offered to them as a ‘take it or leave it’ measure.

“We wanted an investigation, we asked multiple times for an investigation,” Hebert said. Hebert’s name went public, despite her having signed a nondisclosure agreement, when reports from other victims were published by the media ahead of Lopez’s resignation in 2013. Instead of an investigation, Hebert said she, along with Pasarell, were made to sign nondisclosure agreements and were told Lopez would go through sexual harassment prevention training.

“The NDA, it wasn’t just that...we couldn’t speak to anyone,” Hebert said. “It was, at first, $10,000 in liquidated damages if we broke it for every occurence, and it would happen with a mediator behind closed doors so no one would know they were enforcing the agreement. And it also contained a provision that we could never apply to the Assembly again.” This last measure effectively limiting their opportunities to work in state government, and the fine making it impossible for the complainants to explain their circumstances to future employers, file for unemployment benefits, or warn others or the Human Rights Division of Lopez’s behavior.  

They pushed back on their exclusion from the Assembly and the response was, “we could never apply to Lopez’s office again, which was fine, but they increased our liquidated damages cost to $20,000,” Hebert said.

Pasarell, another of Lopez’s victims, said the anti-sexual harassment legislation in the budget regarding nondisclosure agreements -- that they can only be used in cases where the complainant consents -- can too easily be twisted to benefit the harasser.

“The way they phrased the new law is for the complainant to have a nondisclosure agreement, it’s got to be the complainant’s preference. In our case we saw repeatedly how the Assembly portrayed it as if it was our preference when it absolutely was not,” she said. “The nondisclosure agreement came to us very late in the game and it was ‘take it or leave it.’”

Women reporting sexual harassment will be better assisted, The Sexual Harassment Working Group argues, if the Legislature provides greater protection against victim coercion into signing nondisclosure agreements. The group also recommends the law allow for individual liability, so harassers can be targeted without taking the Legislature or State to arbitration or court. And, in cases where complainants do want a nondisclosure agreement for confidentiality reasons, there should be a “Sunshine in Litigation” law to prevent serial harassers (who’ve offended at least once prior) from re-offending. “Limited information would be shared but a pattern of harassment would be outed,” Pasarell said.

The way to change the culture of sexual harassment and exploitation is through changing the law, The Sexual Harassment Working Group maintains, and the way to do that is through consulting with victims, advocacy groups, and others, including lawmakers -- a process much more extensive than how Cuomo and legislative leaders, all men, went about it.

In response to The Sexual Harassment Working Group’s report, Cuomo’s team said it will review the recommendations but gave no indication of whether or not they will consider holding or pushing for a public hearing on the issue.

“No woman should ever be violated, let alone in the workplace—period. And that’s why Governor Cuomo has championed measures that hold employers accountable for ensuring a hospitable workplace,” Lever, Cuomo’s press secretary, told Gotham Gazette. “The ‘Me Too’ movement has caused an awakening in our society, and while we’ve taken positive concrete steps in New York, we need to continue to see progress in our state and across the country. We look forward to reviewing these recommendations and continuing this important work.”

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by Caitlin Bishop, Gotham Gazette
@caitybishop  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that Lopez allegedly harassed eight women on 33 counts, not 33 women; that two, not three, of the women mentioned signed NDAs; and that Kaiser reported Kellner's behavior to the Assembly counsel's office, not Speaker Silver directly.

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Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies Sun, 24 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Anti-Harassment Bills Don’t Apply to the City Council https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7527-city-council-anti-harassment-bills-don-t-apply-to-the-city-council https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7527-city-council-anti-harassment-bills-don-t-apply-to-the-city-council Johnson City Council staff

Speaker Johnson and others (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Last week, the City Council proposed a legislative package aimed at confronting sexual harassment in private and government work environments. It includes 11 bills, four of which would apply to city agencies should they become law. Council members sponsoring the bills, including Speaker Corey Johnson, touted the legislation as evidence of the Council taking significant action toward preventing and punishing the type of harassment that has become the focus of a national movement. But the bills do not apply to the City Council itself.

“All New Yorkers are entitled to a safe, respectful workplace – and this starts with sending a strong message to employers that there is no place for sexualharassment in New York City,” Johnson said in a press release. “With more and more sexual harassment cases being brought to light, it has never been more important for the government to play a role in the movement to end sexual harassment and assault.”

There was also some confusion among the bill-sponsoring Council members and in the speaker's office as to whether the bills applied to other non-mayoral government entities such as the offices of the Comptroller, Public Advocate, or Borough Presidents. After this article was originally published, a Council spokesperson clarified that "The legislation as it is written will cover non-mayoral government entities, including the offices of the Comptroller, Public Advocate, or Borough Presidents. The Council will be covered through a rule that will be drafted to ensure compliance."

Speaker Johnson, along with Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Mark Levine, and Adrienne Adams, are the primary sponsors of the bills that add requirements to city agencies’ anti-sexual harassment policies and procedures. Johnson’s bill would mandate twice-annual sexual harassment training; Adams’ bill would instruct the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) and Commission on Human Rights to partner in determining risk factors “associated with sexual harassment” in city agencies; Levine’s would mandate that city agencies collect and then report sexual harassment cases; and Rosenthal’s would direct the Commission on Human Rights to administer surveys that test “general awareness and knowledge of workplace sexual harassment policies and prevention.”   

When originally asked about the omission of the Council and other non-mayoral entities in the legislation, a City Council spokesperson said that the Council is in the beginning stages of the legislative process, the bills may change, and that the Council will adhere to the laws they pass. There was no discussion of the Council’s own policies at the hourslong hearing on the bills held February 28 at City Hall.

A spokesperson for Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Women, told Gotham Gazette that the process is in its early stages, insisted the Council would comply with the practices in the new laws, and said that many of the provisions in the bevy of bills are already the Council’s policy, such as the provisions included in Johnson’s bill.  

A spokesperson for Adrienne Adams also said the Council was early in its process and “intended to comply” with the legislation.

A spokesperson for Mark Levine did not respond to requests for comment. Last year, Levine announced plans to introduce legislation that would designate Council staff complaints as the purview of the Council’s Standards and Ethics Committee, which currently only has oversight of elected Council members. The proposal has yet to make it into bill form.

For the several hundred employees of the City Council, the body’s own harassment policies and procedures are not public and Gotham Gazette is still awaiting the results of a Freedom of Information Law request for information regarding how harassment complaints are handled and how the Council’s equal employment committee (EEC) functions.

When it comes to handling complaints at the Council, sources indicate that there is a process for making and evaluating complaints through the EEC. Elected Council members themselves, are subject to the Committee on Standards and Ethics, made up of Council members, which evaluates complaints and can adjudicate punishment, as it recently did with Council Member Andy King, who was assigned additional training after a complaint of undue attention to a staff member was substantiated.

The bills will likely be changed before they are voted through committee and then the full Council, but to what extent remains unclear.

It was also unclear whether the offices of the Comptroller, Public Advocate, and Borough Presidents were aware of their inclusion in the legislation. When asked about their exclusion, working from apparently incorrect initial responses from the Council, those offices sent the following replies.

A spokesperson for Comptroller Scott Stringer declined to comment regarding the Council leaving itself out of the legislation, but provided Gotham Gazette with the office’s policies and procedures on sexual misconduct.  

A spokesperson for Public Advocate Letitia James did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said, "We have a standing EEO policy and trainings are conducted annually in coordination with DCAS. Even though the agency is not required to do so, Brooklyn Borough Hall implements the same anti-sexual harassment training that is applied in mayoral agencies. I will continue to apply the highest City standard for combating sexual harassment in the workplace, and I appreciate the City Council taking up this important issue.”

A spokesperson for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. told Gotham Gazette, "Our office has a comprehensive sexual harassment policy that reflects the policies published by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services on the issue."

A spokesperson for Queens Borough President Melinda Katz said they had to review the legislation before commenting and that the office has existing policies in place for sexual harassment.

A spokesperson for Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer declined to comment on the legislation.

A spokesperson for Staten Island Borough President James Oddo also declined to comment on the legislation, but told Gotham Gazette the Borough President’s office follows the procedures used by city agencies and has both a male and female Citywide Diversity and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) officer.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, told Gotham Gazette that the omission of the City Council is part of a “pervasive disease of legislators.” “They like to prescribe vaccinations for everybody else but themselves,” she continued. “I have no idea what the motive is.”

Note: this story has been updated in several places based on new information provided by the City Council after the story was originally published.

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City Council Anti-Harassment Bills Don’t Apply to the City Council Thu, 08 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000