The days of handsy Albany lawmakers preying on young legislative aides then hiding their lecherous behavior behind taxpayer-funded hush money could be over thanks to the enactment of a sweeping sexual harassment law.
The reform bill, signed by Gov. Cuomo on Monday, applies not only to state legislators, but all businesses in New York.
It includes a measure broadening the criteria for making a harassment complaint; language aimed at ending restrictive non-disclosure agreements; and an expansion of the statute of limitations for filing a sexual harassment complaint, from one to three years.
“We are sending a strong message that time is up on sexual harassment in the workplace and setting the standard of equality for women,” the governor said.
But activists noted the legislation passed thanks to pressure from the #MeToo movement, as embodied by the Sexual Harassment Working Group consisting of former Albany staffers who said they had been abused.
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“This is a key example of what happens when you center the experiences of the very people who have been hurt and long ignored by policies and the policy makers behind them,” Erica Vladimer, who co-founded the Working Group, told the Daily News.
As the #MeToo movement gained steam around the country, Cuomo in spring 2018 held closed-door negotiations leading to several proposals to address sexual harassment.
Activists voiced outrage at being excluded from the process, compelling the legislature to hold two public hearings earlier this year in which the advocates testified about being abused.
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State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx/Westchester) and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Queens) went on to propose the measures, including one eliminating a requirement that sexual harassment be “severe and pervasive” for it to merit legal action.
“It was the right time,” Simotas said in a phone interview. “We had the right advocates and I think that we had the right legislators pushing for these changes.”
The legislation also requires non-disclosure agreements between victims and employers to include language preserving the victims’ right to sue.
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Vladimer, who is now running for congress, helped launch the Sexual Harassment Working Group after she accused former state Sen. Jeff Klein — Biaggi’s predecessor — of forcibly kissing her. He denied the allegation.
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Another working group member, Elias Farah, accused former Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak of Western New York of retaliating against him after their brief relationship ended.
“I think it’s great that the governor is finally” addressing sexual harassment, said Farah, a Buffalo-based lawyer. “But I think it should have been done much sooner and there’s also still so much more to do.”
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Simotas plans to push for a bill that would end a practice known as “liquidated damages,” by forcing employers who settle with victims to pay one settlement for sexual harassment and a separate one to stay quiet. That way, if a victim goes public after accepting a settlement, he or she wouldn’t lose the entire sum.
Simotas indulged in a bit of a victory lap upon the signing of her and Biaggi’s bill.
She said, “It’s opening up the floodgates to all of the problems that have been persisting in our state and our society for generations. I am thrilled that we achieved this goal.”