Members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, survivors of sexual...

Members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, survivors of sexual harassment, speak at the hearing Wednesday in Albany. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — State legislators, in their first hearing on sexual harassment in 27 years, made it clear Wednesday that they plan more enforcement of preventive measures and more protection for workers ranging from corporate interns to farmworkers.

Legislators and advocates also said the sexual harassment law passed last year after private negotiations between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and three male legislative leaders came up short of what survivors said is needed.

“We came together because four men in a room hung a ‘mission accomplished’ sign last year on legislation that was rammed through the budget process without meaningfully consulting with key experts, and also with those of us who have experienced harassment and reported harassment,” said Eliyanna Kaiser, a founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group of survivors of sexual harassment, many of whom worked in state government.

Cuomo said he’s on board with another, tougher law. “I will sign any law they can pass,” he said Tuesday.

In Wednesday’s hearing, several legislators focused on enforcement. Although the law passed last year requires companies and governments to have sexual harassment policies, training, and a way to report sexual harassment, the state Labor Department doesn’t require that companies prove they have done so, said Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon.

“We do not enforce the regulations right now; we do education,” Reardon said.

“There doesn’t seem to be clarity on enforcement,” said Assemb. Catalina Cruz (D-Queens), who sought data on sexual harassment cases. “Do we have the numbers? Survivors deserve to know they are being heard and part of that is data information . . . right now, what I hear is no one knows anything and everyone is pointing fingers.”

Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Jackson Heights) said she wants to require the Department of Labor to follow up with employers to make sure they provide the annual training required under law. “There’s no follow-through,” Ramos said. “What’s stopping you from identifying the bad actors and creating a registry?”

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-Mount Vernon) said enforcement and follow-up of state requirements is critical because she knows many workers simply flip through Powerpoint slides on their computer, or let an instructional video play unwatched, then share the codes with co-workers as evidence they completed the training.

“If there are things you want us to do, we would certainly entertain it,” Reardon said.

Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) noted the current law lacks a central phone number to call and an independent investigator to report harassment. The Assembly has such an investigator.

In addition:

  • Several legislators said they want to change the state law's definition that sexual harassment must be "severe or pervasive."
  • Assemb. Rodneyse Bichotte (D-Brooklyn) suggested that employers who committed or allowed sexual harassment might have to pay for a survivor’s therapy. She also suggested co-workers be required to report sexual harassment of others.
  • Assemb. Kenneth Zebrowski (D-New City) said the state needs to create sanctions for employers who violate a confidentiality provision sought by the survivor.
  • Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) said he wants independent contractors to be covered by the sexual harassment protections — “It’s a model we know employers use to evade these good laws.”
  • Assemb. Jo Anne Simon (D-Brooklyn) wants to extend to three years the time an employee can bring a civil action against an employer. The statute of limitations is now one year.
  • Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx) suggested that victims be encouraged to retain lawyers and that a cadre of lawyers serving pro bono might be created.

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