Sex Harassment Laws Toughened in New York: ‘Finally, This Is Happening’

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ALBANY — For decades, sexual harassment was the State Capitol’s worst-kept secret.

Even as women climbed the ranks of political power and won legal promises of gender equality, legislators avoided the topic of harassment. Female aides and even lawmakers who tried to complain were ignored or paid to be silent.

Even when harassment scandals burst into public view, lawmakers did not propose bills to strengthen workplace protections, promising instead to dedicate themselves to internal reform.

But under the newly Democrat-led Legislature, that era seems to have ended. Earlier this year, the state held its first public hearings on the issue in nearly 30 years. And on Wednesday, lawmakers passed sweeping anti-harassment legislation that supporters said would make New York’s laws among the most robust in the nation.

The package was the result of more than a year of lobbying by women across the state — including legislators, employment lawyers and celebrities — whose years of anger were given voice by the #MeToo movement. It was also directly tied to a group of former legislative staffers, who formed the Sexual Harassment Working Group to demand hearings and craft policy ideas, many of which were ultimately approved.

The legislation eliminates the state’s “severe or pervasive” standard for proving harassment, which advocates said had allowed judges to dismiss claims of inappropriate comments or even groping as insufficiently hostile.

The bills also restrict employers’ ability to avoid liability for the behavior of their employees; provide for attorney fees and punitive damages in discrimination cases; expand the time frame to file complaints about workplace harassment with a state agency; and ensure that anti-harassment training is provided in multiple languages.

The bills had never been introduced before last year, when the former legislative staff members proposed them to two female lawmakers. They would apply statewide, not only to government employees.

“I was coming to Albany like, ‘Oh, finally this is happening,’” said Elizabeth Crothers, who traveled from her home in Washington to watch the bills’ passage. Ms. Crothers, a former Assembly staff member, in 2001 accused a powerful aide to the Assembly speaker of rape.

An Assembly investigation cleared the aide, J. Michael Boxley, of wrongdoing. He was later indicted on charges of assaulting another woman.

“It doesn’t erase the past,” Ms. Crothers said. “But I see it as finally, institutionally, the Legislature has looked in the mirror and is looking forward.”

A separate bill approved Wednesday would also extend the statute of limitations for second- and third-degree rape. The previous statute of limitations for second-degree rape was five years, among the shortest in the country; advocates with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund had noted that some of the disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s alleged victims could not press charges against him because too much time had elapsed.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has promised to sign the bills.

“We will make it easier for claims to be brought forward and send a strong message that when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, time is up,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

The changes build on a slate of laws that Mr. Cuomo signed last year amid the peak of the #MeToo movement that banned most nondisclosure agreements and mandatory arbitration for harassment complaints, and required government employees found responsible for harassment to refund any taxpayer-financed payouts.

Mr. Cuomo has repeatedly called those laws the strongest in the nation. But advocates, including the group of former legislative staffers, criticized the lawmaking process as too opaque, and they said it left the laws riddled with loopholes.

Before last year’s elections, the advocates pushed Democratic candidates to pledge support for public hearings, and when many of the candidates won, they pressed them to fulfill their promise.

The Legislature held two hearings on sexual harassment this year — the first since 1992. Lawmakers cited those hearings as inspiration for the final bills.

During the floor debate, lawmakers shared personal stories of harassment.

“I was told, ‘That’s just the way it is,’” said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal of Manhattan after describing being harassed by a former colleague. “For too long, we’ve accepted that’s just the way it is. But that’s not true anymore.”

They also repeatedly acknowledged how the former staffers had pushed the Legislature to change, despite resistance.

Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who represents the Bronx and Westchester, and who sponsored the anti-harassment bills, said the staffers’ efforts had led lawmakers to dive “headfirst into territories previously deemed off limits.”

Several of the group’s members sat on the floor of the Senate and Assembly as the bills were debated, tearfully filming the proceedings.

The proposals passed 109 to 19 in the Assembly. One Republican member, Andy Goodell, worried that the rules could burden small businesses, which he said could face financial hardship from legal fees related to harassment claims even if owners were found blameless.

In the Senate, where the bills passed unanimously, the former staffers received a standing ovation.

Ms. Crothers said she could not have imagined such an outcome when she left the Assembly nearly two decades ago.

“Back then, legislators didn’t care. Or if they did, they did an awfully good job hiding it,” she said.

“Now there are people here who are listening and are caring.”

Jesse McKinley contributed reporting.

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