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State Senate approves anti-sexual harassment measures

Jason Smith
WRVO News (file photo)

The New York State Senate approved anti-sexual harassment measures this week that extend protections to top staff in the governor’s office as well as for employees of other elected officials.

The actions come as Gov. Andrew Cuomo is under investigation by the state attorney general after several women accused him of sexual harassment -- and in one case, assault.

The bills strengthen the state’s sexual harassment laws, which were updated in 2019 and close some loopholes.

Bill sponsor Sen. Andrew Gounardes said the current laws contain a “glaring exception.” Some employees in the Legislature, the governor’s office, and the state’s court system are exempt from the protections in the laws if they are considered to be “personal staff.” Gounardes said that carve-out runs counter to efforts to root out harassment in government.

“Today, we are going to be righting that wrong,” Gounardes said. “To put a stop to the license to harass  that elected officials and judges have exercised in New York for far too long.”

The measure would protect, going forward, the top staff of the governor, as well as all senators and Assembly members.

Cuomo, who has denied the allegations of sexual harassment against him, has not taken a position on the measures.  

Attorney General Tish James said recently that there is no timetable for concluding what she calls a “very thorough and comprehensive” investigation into the accusations.

Another bill approved in the Senate, also sponsored by Gounardes, focuses on when a harassment victim signs a settlement agreement with an employer. The bill would make it illegal for the agreement to mandate that the victim never again work for the governmental entity where the harassment took place. 

“Far too often, victims of sexual harassment who enter into settlement agreements are forced to sign away their rights to ever apply for positions at companies or their places of employment ever again,” said Gounardes, who added it deprives the victims of employment opportunities and is a “punishment” for coming forward with their complaints.

Another bill would extend the statute of limitations on filing a legal claim in a sexual harassment case from three years to six years.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group, an advocacy group made up of women who say they were harassed while working in state government, hailed the vote, calling it “a critical step in centering the humanity of workers over the protection of power and power abuse."

The bills have not advanced in the state Assembly. Speaker Carl Heastie announced that a working group on sexual harassment created in 2018 will be extended and include new members. He also said the Assembly will be meeting with the Sexual Harassment Working Group in the coming days.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.