NYS Exposed: Changes proposed for sexual harassment in NYS government

January 15, 2018 01:50 PM

The #MeToo movement is sweeping the country bringing down once powerful leaders, entertainers and journalists. It has also showed that sexual harassment is present in all industries, NYS government included.

For years at the state capital, victims and advocates say sexual harassment allegations have been swept under the rug. Accusers were paid secret settlements to keep quiet and suspects were slapped on the wrist but now there is a push to end that culture. “We are not the state of denial, we acknowledge the long-standing bias and abuse against women and New York…it stops and it stops now,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said last week in his State of the State address.  


Governor Cuomo has promised to change policies, not just in Albany but across the state. “New York will enact a strict new uniform code for sexual harassment policies binding on all state employees, in all branches, in all authorities, in all agencies and on local governments and set a new national standard for respect of women,” he said.

But according to New York’s Vice President of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the state has a ways to go. “It's clear that Albany in particular has had a long and pretty egregious record of legislators being sexual harassers so it's a problem that's been grappled with in state government,” says Jean Bucaria. And so far, not handled as decisively as many would think.

Several years ago, the state paid more than $500,000 of your tax dollars in secret settlements to staffers who accused then-NYC Assemblyman Vito Lopez of groping and sexually harassing them. In another instance, Buffalo Assemblyman Sam Hoyt was banned from having interns after racy text messages went public showing he and a 19-year old intern had a sexual relationship.

“The idea that you would prevent young people from having opportunities to cut their teeth in politics to protect a harasser is as victim-blaming as you can get. If you can't meet the bare minimum standard of respect and decency maybe you shouldn't be in that office,” Bucaria says.

Other state lawmakers have had their leadership positions taken away or been publicly censured.  

“I'm hoping this is a pivotal moment in our state's history and our country's history where we can undertake this problem, come up with solutions and actually change people's attitude at the same time,” says NYS Senator Catharine Young, a Republican from Olean. Young has introduced a series of bills that align with some of the reforms Governor Cuomo is calling for starting with something very simple. “I was astounded to see there is no definition of sexual harassment anywhere on the books in New York State law,” she says.

So, she wants it clearly defined, she also wants to prohibit all secret settlements to victims and ban companies and the state from forcing employees with complaints to use arbitration.

Bucaria is optimistic that this bill and the Governor’s Women’s Rights agenda are positive steps in the right direction. "This is an issue that crosses party lines. We're seeing more interest in it than ever before so what we're working toward is making sure these laws and everything that's been proposed is actually put in place and that they are implemented in a way that's more effective then what's been done in the past,” she says.


Jennifer Lewke

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