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NYC holds hearing on sexual harassment in the workplace

LONG ISLAND CITY — New York City’s Commission on Human Rights held its first public hearing on sexual harassment in over 40 years at CUNY Law School in Long Island City this evening.

Advocates and individuals working in hospitality, retail, domestic work, construction, media, entertainment and fashion, among other industries, testified about their experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace and the challenges they face in reporting it.

“This isn’t shocking, this isn’t anything new, sexual abuse has been rampant in the industry for a long time but now people are finally starting to speak, so my hope is that I can make recommendations to the city for how we can prevent this kind of abuse from happening,” said Sara Ziff, of Model Alliance.

Ziff testified Wednesday evening about the sexual harassment she’s endured in her career. She’s now an advocate for other models.

“From as young as 14 years old, I was put on the spot to pose nude. I had to deal with inappropriate sexual demands on the job from much older male photographers. Sometimes I felt like I was being treated more like an escort than a professional model and I’m saying that as someone who has worked as the face of big brands and has been very fortunate in my career. I know that my experiences are not uncommon,” said Ziff.

One by one, they shared their very personal stories to an audience of strangers. Several hundred packed Dave Fields Auditorium. It’s a historic moment for New Yorkers to raise their voices.

“We’ve been getting calls at the Commission on Human Rights from businesses and employers saying how do we deal with these cases, how do we do things better to prevent these types of situations and we’ve been getting calls from people affected by sexual harassment saying what kind of remedies are available, how can I handle this and still move forward with a career,” said Carmelyn Malalis, Chair and Commissioner of the Commission.

The need for a public hearing is certainly there. High-profile cases of sexual harassment reaching every industry, dominating headlines in recent months. Allegations against men like movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, Sen. Al Franken, comedian Louis C.K. and former NBC anchor Matt Lauer have felled their careers,

“I think it’s important the New York City Commission on Human Rights is taking a leadership role for a national issue, better to deal with it on the ground, on the ground means closest to people,” said Congresswoman Eleanor Homes Norton, (D-Washington, D.C.). She held the first public hearings on gender discrimination in the country when she led the Commission and she was back tonight.

“As a member of Congress, I must tell you the Congress is floundering on sexual harassment. We should have taken care of this issue and taken leadership for the nation long ago. We are just seeing the beginning, we don’t know what the solution is. Tonight, I hope we get an idea of where the remedy should go,” adds Norton.

This public hearing coming on the same day Time Magazine named the so called “Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year. They symbolize people who have come forward to report sexual misconduct. It's a recognition of the cultural reckoning this year and the #MeToo movement, which represents the people, mostly women, who have fueled a worldwide discussion about sexual harassment and assault.

Wednesday night, nearly 30 people signed up to testify inside the CUNY auditorium. Men and women who are construction representing nearly every industry, showing just how widespread sexual harassment in the workplace is.

“It's historic. For New York City, but also historic nationally as we’ve seen silence broken on sexual harassment across the country with people speaking up in several different industries. I think there’s also a real place for government to be here,” said Commissioner Malalis.

In the months ahead, the Commission is expected to issue a report with policy recommendations on combatting sexual harassment in the workplace in New York City.