Since the allegations of sexual abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein surfaced on Oct. 5, 2017, women have been stepping forward to publicly share their stories of sexual misconduct. With the prospect of being held accountable for their actions, some 100 high profile male executives and businessmen have resigned, while others have been ousted from their companies amidst the allegations.
To help strengthen New York state's harassment laws, Sen. Terrence Murphy of Yorktown has sponsored legislation that is designed to be a comprehensive response to sexual harassment in New York's workplaces. The bill (S7848A), co-sponsored by Murphy with Senators Catharine Young and Elaine Phillips, who are members of the Senate Republican Women's Caucus, and others, would prevent individuals from engaging in misconduct that creates a hostile work environment in either the public or private sectors and encourages victims to come forward.
"The victims of sexual harassment have been forced to remain silent for far too long," Murphy said. "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."
There is currently no definition in statute of what constitutes sexual harassment. That leaves litigants subject to varying interpretations by judges, who may improperly dismiss sexual harassment cases at the outset. One study found that approximately 37 percent of cases are dismissed pretrial.
Major reforms called for in the bill include:
* Adopting the definition of "Sexual Harassment" into state law: The bill creates a uniform definition of sexual harassment that is based on federal regulations: unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission to or rejection of such conduct, explicitly or implicitly, affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment without regard to actual economic injury to or discharge of the individual.
* Prohibiting secret settlements unless the victim requests confidentiality: Courts would be prohibited from accepting any sexual harassment settlements that include confidentiality agreements or provisions. This would help ensure that those responsible are held accountable and prevent future harassment.
* Prohibiting 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.
* Protecting non-employees in the workplace: 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.
* Creating a uniform policy for all branches of state and local government: The state Department of Labor would be required to create a strong model management policy defining and prohibiting sexual harassment. Every county, city, town, village, school district, or other public entity would be required to develop a sexual harassment prevention policy that applies to all employees and which includes investigation procedures and a standard complaint form. Each complaint would be confidential and the policy must include the prevention of intimidation, retaliation, or coercion to help protect the complainant.
* Protecting 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 bill was passed by the Senate on March 12 by a vote of 56-2. It will be sent to the Assembly.
Click here to sign up for Daily Voice's free daily emails and news alerts.