NY may ban taxpayer-backed sexual harassment settlements

ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed sweeping changes to the sexual harassment policies covering state and local officials Tuesday following national attention on the problem of sexual misconduct in the workplace.

The Democrat’s proposal includes a prohibition on taxpayer funded legal settlements involving complaints against individual government officials. It would also require that all harassment settlements to be made public unless the victim prefers they remain confidential.

He’s also pushing for changes to private employment rules to void forced arbitration clauses in employee contracts that keep sexual harassment cases out of the courts.

The last year “brought a long overdue reckoning” on sexual harassment, Cuomo said, and provided an opportunity for lawmakers to address a problem that goes back decades in state government.

“There must be zero tolerance for sexual harassment in any workplace, and we can and will end the secrecy and coercive practices that have enabled harassment for far too long,” Cuomo said.

The proposals will be part of Cuomo’s State of the State address on Wednesday, the first day of the 2018 legislative session.

Lawmakers have already proposed many of the ideas laid out by Cuomo. Currently, a patchwork of different harassment policies covers the state Senate, Assembly, executive branch and local governments.

Now, there’s broad support among lawmakers from both parties that more must be done — something that pleases advocates who have long pressed Albany for greater action on the topic of sexual harassment.

“It’s going to be a productive and empowering year,” predicted Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women-New York.

Outlawing secret, taxpayer-funded settlements that allow officials to resolve complaints without public scrutiny is a top priority. Democratic leaders of the state Assembly were criticized in 2012 after approving a secret, $103,000 settlement over harassment complaints against former Assemblyman Vito Lopez.

Efforts to outlaw such taxpayer-funded settlements and make other changes to the state’s policy now have broad support among lawmakers from both parties.

Sen. Elaine Phillips, R-Long Island, said the goal is to “punish abusers, prevent harassment and further protect all victims.”

Other proposals from lawmakers include stronger protections against workplace retaliation for employees who report harassment, and a new law formally making sexual harassment a discriminatory practice — a move that would make it easier for workers to bring lawsuits against employers.

“This year we’ve seen what happens when celebrities speak out against those who have sexually harassed them,” said Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan. “But in this #MeToo moment, we must also ensure that regular working people can hold their harassers to account as well.”
Cuomo to push for legislation to combat sexual harassment