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Lawmakers eye stronger harassment rules, mandatory training

Current policies and training are being reviewed to strengthen them and empower employees to report harassment, Laura Curran said.

Nassau County Executive-elect Laura Curran said her administration

Nassau County Executive-elect Laura Curran said her administration would enforce zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Credit: Howard Schnapp

As the national reckoning on sexual harassment continues to unfold, Long Island lawmakers are taking measures to guard against workplace harassment closer to home.

A resolution to mandate sexual harassment training in county government leadership will be introduced Tuesday in the Suffolk County Legislature. In Nassau, County Executive-elect Laura Curran said her administration would enforce zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

Curran said she and her incoming chief deputy Helena Williams have begun a review of current policies and training to strengthen them and empower employees to report harassment. “I think it’s something I’d be interested in anyway, but what is going on in the national conversation gives it a sense of urgency,” Curran said Monday.

A flood of allegations have toppled famous men — from the judiciary and Capitol Hill to the media, arts and entertainment industries — ever since October when multiple allegations of assault and harassment were published about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

The #MeToo campaign on Twitter garnered tens of thousands of responses recounting the experiences of ordinary women and men, and Time magazine named The Silence Breakers — women who spoke out on abuse — as its Person of the Year for 2017.

On Long Island, rape and sexual assault hotlines report callers are referencing the flood of allegations, and some employment lawyers said they’ve seen an uptick in calls from women wishing to file suits.

“Seeing celebrities they feel they know well who are comfortable to say this happened has a trickle-down effect,” said employment lawyer Caitlin McNaughton, of Lake Success. “It has made everyday people feel comfortable to come forward.”

The Suffolk County resolution to mandate sexual harassment training every other year would apply to legislators, county department heads and top staff, said its co-sponsors: Suffolk Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Holbrook), Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville).

The training is “just to say what is and is not appropriate,” said Lindsay, so people understand better the boundaries of acceptable behavior “and how to adhere to them.”

Men are not always sure “what the right thing to do anymore,” said Lindsay, who noted that it is “socializing that is the gray area of what is allowable or not. The training will make a clear message that no form of sexual harassment will be tolerated, regardless of what position you’re in.”

Hahn said she also was working with legislative staff to review policies and any gaps in protections for workers in small businesses.

“I don’t have a specific proposal right now, and whether something gets passed will depend on the details, but there is interest on both sides of the aisle,” Hahn said. “It’s a nonpartisan issue that all of us seem to want to tackle.”

Martinez said a colleague at an earlier job made remarks about her appearance in a way that was still vivid and disturbing to her.

Frank Moroney, director of communications for the Republican majority in the Nassau Legislature, said that there was a sexual harassment policy in place, but given the national debate, “it’s a perfect time and reason to go back and revisit it to make sure it’s effective.” Legis. Denise Ford (D-Long Beach) said she’s asked for a review of current training and policies.

Meanwhile, women calling The Safe Center, a victims services agency in Bethpage with a 24-hour hotline, are mentioning the media stories about harassment, said director of education Anthony Zenkus.

“In the past month, we’ve had three clients who are women victims of rape or sexual assault who said the reason they came forward were the stories in the press,” Zenkus said. He said there have been more women claiming that an employer touched them inappropriately, but that they didn’t know it was a crime. The callers “always knew it was wrong, but now because of the stories are feeling empowered to do something about it,” he added.

Smaller companies encourage people to report harassment quickly, said Christine Ippolito, founder and principal of Compass Workforce Solutions, a human resources consulting firm based in Deer Park with clients throughout the tristate area. “It’s horrible for business . . . famous people get away with a lot of things that the average person would never get away with.”

She said a one-time behavior “isn’t unlawful unless it’s egregious.” But if it is repeated and the person on the receiving end does not want to hear an off-color joke or go out on a date, then it could rise to the level of being unlawful, she said.

“I would say most of what we see is people doing something stupid or silly without thinking about it,” she said. “You just have to make them aware of it and be pretty firm about it.”

However, employees stepping forward to report harassment also can face retaliation from employers. Last year, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws against discrimination for employers with 15 or more workers, the single-largest category of complaint was about retaliation for speaking out about discrimination or harassment.

According to a report issued last year by an EEOC task force, most people experiencing discrimination or harassment never say anything. “The least common response to harassment is to take some formal action — either to report the harassment internally or file a formal legal complaint,” according to the report, which contended that only about a fourth of those experiencing it report it because they fear disbelief, blame, inaction or retaliation.

Most suits alleging harassment are settled before or early in litigation, attorneys say. Sometimes victims walk away from a job without taking action, as in the case of a 37-year-old Plainview woman who paused during her shopping recently at the Broadway Mall in Hicksville.

Sam — she asked to withhold her last name — said when she was a teenager, her co-worker in a shoe store would expose himself and cover himself with a shoe. She told him “it wasn’t funny,” but her boss thought it was, “so I quit,” she said.

She left a restaurant hostess job after a supervisor repeatedly stroked her hand and invited her downstairs, she said, then quit an office receptionist job when a married owner of the business persisted in propositioning her. “I complained to a co-worker. She said, ‘Oh, that’s just him. He does it to everyone.’ ”

Now she works as a preschool teacher, she said. “I took a huge pay cut because of it, but I feel safe.”

She is glad that stories about sexual harassment are finally becoming public. “It’s disgusting, and I’m really glad that all these women are speaking out,” she said.

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