ALBANY — A sweeping package of laws to combat sexual harassment, protect victims and keep taxpayers from paying for settlements in government cases is expected to be included in a state budget planned for adoption this week, Senate and Assembly officials confirmed Wednesday
The package is expected to be the biggest policy measure in the state budget, which is due by Sunday. Critics complained the proposal was negotiated without any woman legislator in closed-door negotiations and a group of seven women witnesss of past sexual harassment in the Legislature called for a more thoughtful process, with public hearings after the budget is approved.
The package of bills that has yet to be printed includes banning taxpayer-paid settlements when government officials are found to have sexually harassed employees, the officials said. A mechanism will be put in place so that “victims always get compensated,” as one Senate official said, even if the accused has no resources to pay the victim for anguish and other emotional and physical pain. The state could “claw back” the funding in numerous ways, an Assembly official said.
Another major element will prohibit employers from requiring employees to sign nondisclosure agreements about sexual harassment settlements that can shield the identity of companies and harassers. Victims, however, could still seek to keep their identity out of public records.
The package would also make “independent contractors” subject to the same sexual harassment policies and rules as traditional full-time employees.
The measures also will bar employers’ requiring employees to agree to “mandatory arbitration” of sexual harassment claims, rather than pursing civil cases or enforcement by the state or federal government human rights offices.
The Legislature’s highest ranking woman, Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), had no direct communication on the matter with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and was “not been invited to participate in any budget-related negotiations,” said her spokesman, Mike Murphy. Minority conference leaders traditionally aren’t invited to budget negotiations called by governors.
But the lack of an elected woman legislator participating directly in the negotiations came under fire from politicians, advocates and Cynthia Nixon, the former “Sex and the City” star who is challenging Cuomo for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Nixon, on Twitter, noted that a story referred to the absence of Stewart-Cousins in the discussions and the presence of Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) — who has been accused by a former staff member of forcibly kissing her, an accusation he denies — and wrote: “Headlines like this shouldn’t exist in 2018 . . . Supporting our campaign means supporting a fight for all of us to have a seat at the table when our rights are at stake.”
Cuomo sought to counter criticism about the negotiations, saying on Wednesday that each legislative conference has a female representative on an ad-hoc, unelected “working group” that is hashing out the issue.
“We have a working group that’s doing the sexual harassment bill,” the governor told reporters. “It’s made up of female representatives from both houses.”