Budget includes new protections against sexual harassment in the workplace

Legislative Gazette file photo
Sen. Catharine Young is heralding new workplace harassment laws she helped write that were included in the budget.

Calling it a victory for sexual harassment victims, and a defining moment for New York, Sen. Catharine Young, R– Olean, is praising new protections included in 2018-2019 state budget to combat the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The framework of the new law adheres closely to legislation that Sen. Young introduced in December while also incorporating elements supported by the governor and Democratic members of the Senate and Assembly.

“With this law, New York is embracing the call to action demanded by the many courageous voices who have brought the issue of sexual harassment out of the darkness and into the light,” Young said.

The new laws will ensure that any business that has a contract with state government has a sexual harassment policy in place. It will also prohibit any employee in New York state from waiving their right to sue over sexual harassment at the workplace.

The new sexual harassment policies were modeled largely on Young’s bill S.7848-a, which was supported by members of the Senate Republican Women’s Caucus. In the wake of the recent #MeToo! movement and the rash of accusations against actors and filmmakers in Hollywood, legislators made this a priority this session.

“The victims of sexual harassment have been forced to remain silent for far too long. We now have legislation that gives them a voice to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, holds offenders accountable for their inexcusable behavior, and protects taxpayers from footing the bill to settle sexual harassment lawsuits” said Sen. Terrence Murphy, a co-sponsor of Young’s bill.

As the bill’s memo states, as much as 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s study of workplace harassment in 2016.

In light of recent harassment cases, this legislation would also prohibit any municipality from being able to enter into a sexual harassment settlement that includes a nondisclosure agreement.

“It is important to remember that for each individual who has come forward in the last two months, there are thousands of others who have also been the victims of sexual harassment,” Young said. “While the celebrities’ stories make headlines, the reality is that individuals in low-wage service occupations such as restaurants wait staff and sales clerks have the highest incidence of sexual harassment.”

The legislation would also create set guidelines for sexual harassment policies for all governments across the state and will require State Department of Labor to create a sexual harassment policy training program which may entail a class or a training video for employees.

Specifically, the new law will:

  • Prohibit secret settlements unless the victim requests confidentiality. Lifting the veil of anonymity from abusers, Young says, will take away their ability to engage in serial predatory behavior.
  • Prohibit mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment complaints. Mandatory arbitration clauses are often used by employers to force sexual harassment victims into private arbitration proceedings, which precludes their ability to seek legal action.
  • Protect contract employees and freelance workers. Currently, individuals who are not employees, but are present in the workplace on a contract basis, cannot file complaints against their harassers. The legislation would close this loophole by extending to contract workers the same right to file sexual harassment complaints to the state Division of Human Rights as individuals who are directly employed by the company or entity.
  • Require adoption of a model sexual harassment policy by all public and private employers. The Department of Labor, in consultation with the state Division of Human Rights, would be required to establish the policy which would be a minimum requirement for all employers.
  • Protect taxpayer funds from being used for individual sexual harassment settlements. When there is a finding or admission of sexual harassment by a state or local employee, this measure holds the harasser financially accountable for the settlement by enabling the public entity to recoup taxpayer money.

“The provisions in this law target sexual harassment from every angle,” Young said. “Victims will no longer be silenced and abusers will no longer be protected by antiquated laws and by a culture that has too often looked the other way.”