State legislators pushed back against state Division of Human Rights officials who refused to weigh in on proposals aimed at addressing and preventing workplace sexual harassment during a 13-hour hearing held May 24.
Legislators are considering a package of 10 bills to strengthen anti-sexual harassment protections, including two that would extend the statute of limitations to report abuse in state court and at the Division of Human Rights, which handles the harassment claims. When Senators Alessandra Biaggi and John C. Liu pressed Deputy Commissioner for Regional Affairs Gina Martinez and Deputy Commissioner for Enforcement Melissa Franco for their opinions on the prospective reforms, they claimed it was important to remain neutral.
“Any opinion that we give would be inappropriate,” Ms. Franco said.
Complaints Up 62%
That reticence frustrated the legislators, particularly because the division saw a 62-percent increase in complaints filed between 2016 and 2018. During that period, a wave of harassment claims—including in city and state government—emerged following reports in October 2017 that movie producer Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted several women in the entertainment business.
“I would actually disagree that you can be neutral,” Ms. Biaggi told the state officials. “In fact, I would implore you to not be neutral, because you can’t fully effectuate your role. The Legislature needs your opinions, and if not you, then who?”
Mr. Liu said that the state division officials were acting as though the status quo was “fine and dandy.”
“There is a heightened awareness of sexual harassment, and you can’t keep doing the same things as usual,” he said.
DHR determined that about 25 percent of harassment claims offered probable cause to open an investigation, about double the rate for other types of complaints.
Seek Less-Demanding Basis
But there was still concern that some cases of abuse were being dismissed. Legislators are considering a bill that would end a standard requiring harassment to be “sufficiently severe or pervasive” enough to “create an abusive working environment.” The city eliminated that policy in 2016.
Dana Sussman, Deputy Commissioner of Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs at the city Commission of Human Rights and Michael Volforte, Director of the Governor's Office of Employee Relations, said that each agency saw an increase in harassment claims.
Ms. Sussman reported the HRC’s findings that complaints disproportionately came from workers in the hospitality and private-security industries, and recounted people’s surprise that the legal bar for harassment not just in the state but across the country was so high. “It seems like the law needs to catch up to what the current expectations are for conduct in the workplace,” she said.
Ms. Biaggi urged the state officials to take the city’s lead on the issue of harassment. “I think the state can definitely learn from that type of bravery,” she said.
Longer Times to Report
Two bills would extend the statute of limitations to report mistreatment. The proposed changes would extend the period of time survivors can report harassment with DHR from a year after the most-recent incident to three years, and from three years to six for those who go to state court.
Ms. Franco said that the Division of Human Rights would support an extension, but explained that officials were more likely to find probable cause if victims reported as soon as possible. “We have found that if witnesses come closer to the last identified act, their memories are better, the documents haven’t been destroyed, the respondent hasn’t gone out of business,” she said.
Several legislators pointed out that abusers in supervisory positions sometimes retained power over employees even after they were no longer working together, making it difficult for victims to report harassment. Sen. David Carlucci panned the officials’ line of thinking. “I know it was said that as time passes memory becomes foggy, and that’s understandable, but what I’m thinking about is when the memory is clear three years later or 13 months later, or the documents are still intact, and we’ve totally shut the door. That concerns me,” he said.
Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou spoke of her own experiences after being sexually assaulted. “I will say that it took over 20 years before I could even speak up about it,” she said. "And there has not been a single moment where I have not lived with it. Memories of it are very fresh and they will continue to be so. I remember what he smelled like, I remember what he looked like, I remember the color of the desk that I was grabbing onto.”
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