The New York State legislature has announced it will hold hearings on February 13th on sexual harassment in state government. The announcement was hailed by a group of women who have experienced or reported being victims of sexual harassment by state lawmakers.
Six Assembly and Senate committee will take testimony from what they call “relevant stakeholders”, and say they hope to engage in a “meaningful dialogue” on the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace. But they say they won’t be taking any individual sexual harassment complaints at the hearing.
The state’s first female Senate Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, called for the hearings on the first day of the 2019 legislative session.
“We need to deal with the scourge of sexual harassment in the workplace,” Stewart-Cousins said on the Senate floor on January 9th. “We will hold all accountable.”
The Sexual Harassment Working Group, made up of seven former New York State Legislature staffers who experienced or reported sexual harassment while working for the state, expressed relief, saying, in a statement, that they are “thrilled” with the decision.
The group’s Erica Vladimer says the women have been asking for hearings for nearly a year.
“Public hearings aren’t the last step. It’s the first step,” Vladimer said. “In really creating the strongest laws to protect workers across New York.”
Vladimer came forward last winter when she accused former Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein forcibly kissed her at a gathering of lawmakers and staffers to celebrate the passage of the state budget at an Albany bar in April of 2015.
Klein, who lost his Senate seat in a 2018 primary, denies the accusation. The state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics is still investigating.
Vladimer says she’s tried to gain something positive out of the experience.
“I didn’t do it for the sole purpose of just telling my story, but I knew how important it was to put it out there in order to advance stronger laws,” said Vladimer, who said the support of the other women in the group have strengthened her. “I honestly don’t know where I would be if I was doing this by myself.”
Klein, as the leader of a legislative conference, participated in closed-door meetings in 2018 with two other legislative leaders and the governor to craft new anti-sexual harassment rules for the state. The all-male meeting excluded Senate Democratic Leader Stewart-Cousins, who was then the minority leader. Stewart-Cousins has set the date for the hearings, along with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
Governor Cuomo has said repeatedly that new anti-sexual harassment guidelines, put in place last October, are the best in the nation, but the Sexual Harassment Working Group disagrees. Vladimer says there’s more work to be done.
“We have an opportunity to pass laws that are the strongest in the nation, but we’re not there yet,” she said. “We can’t get there until victims have seat at the table and their stories are center.”
Vladimer says in the days ahead, her group will work to get the word out about the hearings, and will encourage as many elected officials as they can to attend. She says they will also be asking leading experts on anti sexual harassment policy and advocates to provide testimony.