Women’s rights advocates hail passage of anti-harassment bills

Brooklyn_Daily_Eagle.pngBy Paula Katinas

Women’s rights advocates said they have high hopes that a full crackdown on sexual harassment in workplaces in New York City will begin once a package of bills passed by the City Council are signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

"Real change begins with policies and laws. This is a workplace issue and a safety issue. This is not just a woman’s issue. Creating laws that protect us rather than accuse — or worse, ignore — will help to change the paradigm," Kim Sykes, artistic director of the group Girl Be Heard, said in a statement following the Council’s passage of the Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act on April 11.

The act contains 11 different bills aimed at educating workers on their rights and shedding light on the number of sexual harassment incidents taking place in government offices and private companies.

Dina Bakst, co-president of the organization A Better Balance, said the legislation proved that the Council is willing to take “robust steps” to combat workplace sexual harassment.

"From legislation that will help the city identify the root causes of the problem to requiring that both city and private employers provide comprehensive training to their employees to lowering the threshold of the Human Rights Law to cover all employees who may face gender-based harassment to making information about workers’ rights more accessible and understandable, these laws will greatly strengthen protections for New York City workers," Bakst said.

Under the legislation, every employee working in New York City (regardless of how small their workplace is) will automatically be covered by the sexual harassment provisions of the city’s human rights law.

The act was shepherded through the council by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, the Committee on Women (chaired by Councilmember Helen Rosenthal) and the Committee on Civil and Human Rights (chaired by Councilmember Mathieu Eugene).

The legislative package contains bills requiring employers to post a sexual harassment policy notices within the workplaces and to conduct training sessions for employees on anti-harassment policy.

In addition, the act also mandates that a full accounting be made on harassment in city agencies. This provision is important, according to Council members, because with more than 320,000 employees, the city is New York's largest large employer.

The Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act could lead to real changes, advocates predicted.

"Together, these measures will help lead us toward an equitable environment where women  and men can be shown respect and fair treatment in the workplace and one where inappropriate behavior is unacceptable and not tolerated," said Carole J. Wacey, president and CEO of the Women’s City Club of New York.

When the act becomes law, according to Hollaback! Executive Director Emily May, New York will become the first city in the nation to require all employers to offer sexual harassment-prevention training sessions.

“Even better, these trainings will include a bystander intervention component, so that employees are familiar with how they can best support each other and actively shift their workplace culture to be more inclusive and equitable. These bills honor the experience of a person who's been harassed and show that there are no excuses for workplace sexual harassment, whether it's in an office, online, or in the streets. Taking the problem seriously is crucial to help reduce trauma, fix a harmful environment, and encourage active bystander intervention," May said.  

One of the bills, sponsored by Rosenthal, would require all city employees to be surveyed about harassment and other workplace issues every four years. Another bill, championed by Councilmember Mark Levine, would make city agencies issue annual reports on the number of harassment complaints filed by workers.

"This legislation is an incredible first step toward ending sexual harassment in New York City," Rosenthal said. "We are expanding protections and making sure that employees know their rights. Every workplace, whether it is a city agency or private company, will now have to provide training on what constitutes sexual harassment, and what to do if you have experienced or witnessed it."

Despite the act’s passage, the Council’s work isn’t done, members said.

The Council is still taking a close look at existing sexual harassment policies within city agencies in an effort to understand the full scope of the problem. Members are also exploring policy changes designed to encourage individuals to report harassment and protect them when they do file complaints.

"We must inform and empower every employee of their rights to raise awareness and ensure accountability. No one should ever feel unsafe, threatened, or alone after being subjected to gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment or sexual assault. It is time to break the silence and end the cycle — without remorse or retaliation,” Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo said.

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