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State Senate approves anti sexual harassment measures

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

Credit NYSenate.gov
New York State Senator Andrew Gounardes

Bill sponsor Senator Andrew Gounardes says the current laws contain a “glaring exception”. Some employees in the legislature, the governor’s office, and state’s court system are exempt from the protections in the laws, if they are considered to be “personal staff”. Gounardes says 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 Assemblymembers.

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 says 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. And he says 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. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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