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New workplace sexual harassment protections become law

ALBANY — A set of sweeping new efforts to crack down on workplace sexual harassment problems while also giving new legal rights to victims was signed into state law on Monday.

The multiple part legislation, which passed the Legislature two months ago ends a 1980s-era standard that made sexual harassment cases legally actionable only if they were considered “severe and pervasive."

The law — parts of which take effect immediately and others as long as one year from now — also extends to three years the statute of limitations to bring a sexual harassment and discrimination case to the state’s Division of Human Rights. It also bans employers from having nondisclosure agreements in workers’ contracts to stop them from speaking out about sexual harassment cases.

The new law affects both government and private employers in New York, and includes new protections for nonemployees such as outside contractors.

“I think it’s a good day for workers in New York State. We have successfully eliminated certain barriers that prevented workers from coming forward when they experienced harassment," said Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, a Queens Democrat who sponsored the measure in the Assembly.

In an interview, Simotas said lowering the bar for victims through the elimination of the “severe and pervasive” definition for sexual harassment will have a sweeping effect for victims.

“It will encourage victims to come forward and tell their story because a judge can no longer arbitrarily decide that abuse was not severe or pervasive enough to constitute a harm," she said.

“Our work isn’t done. It’s now on to round two,” the lawmaker said of ongoing efforts involving harassment matters, including a push to bar employers from being able to get back some proceeds of a sexual harassment settlement award by victims who later discuss the case publicly.

The legislation also got a boost from the Me Too movement and, significantly, after the Senate flipped in January to Democratic control — a seismic shift in Albany that has seen the Democrats in 2019 in charge of both houses of the Legislature after decades of dominance by Republicans in the Senate. Earlier this year, the Senate held hearings on the issue of sexual harassment — the first such public forum in 27 years by the 63-member chamber.

In signing the bill into law Monday, Cuomo said it was time to act against what he called “an ongoing, persistent culture of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination in the workplace."

“This legislation is another step in advancing women’s rights and achieving full equality once and for all," added Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Both houses passed the omnibus measure on June 19. The Senate approved it 62-0; it was approved in the Assembly by a 128-20 margin.

One of the no votes was Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, a Jamestown-area Republican. While he said he supported the intent of the legislation, he said it included a number of troublesome issues, such as extending the same legal responsibilities onto the smallest of companies that might not be able to afford some of the new legal responsibilities.

Goodell said a provision to ban mandatory arbitration in sexual harassment and discrimination cases will force companies and workers to turn to expensive and time-consuming court systems. He told his colleagues in June that allowing arbitration by both parties “seems to make more public sense than banning it."

But Simotas on Monday took issue with arbitration.

“Mandatory arbitration provisions have been abused," she said of employers who can drag out arbitration proceedings. Further, she said workers are required to pay for part of the costs of arbitration, which can have a chilling effect on employees seeking to bring a sexual harassment case.

Albany has seen its considerable share of sexual harassment cases over the years, including one of the more infamous: Vito Lopez, a once-powerful Brooklyn Assembly Democrat whose ongoing abuse of female staffers led to his political fall in 2013 but also put a spotlight on an ineffective system that existed for victims who wanted to complain about their bosses in Albany. Lopez died in 2015.

The new law’s other components include:

• Providing new anti-harassment protections for domestic workers and independent contractors.

• Allowing punitive damages and attorney fees for victims in employment discrimination cases.

• No longer making it “determinative” whether an employer is liable just because the worker did not directly bring a harassment claim to the company.

• Mandating that employers make available written sexual harassment prevention policies in an employee’s “primary language."

• Expanding the powers of the state Attorney General to enforce the state’s Human Rights law.

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