A Voice From the Albany Hearings on Combatting Sexual Harassment

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Rita Pasarell testifies before a State Senate committee hearing on sexual harassment in workplaces on Wednesday, February 13.

There needs to be a culture shift at the highest levels of power if New York is going to combat pervasive sexual harassment in workplaces—especially in public agencies and the offices of elected officials. But that is not all that’s needed, says Rita Pasarell, a victim of a politician’s abusive behavior who is now a leading advocate for change in how workplaces deal with sexual misconduct.

Moments after testifying at the first Albany hearings on sexual harassment in a generation, Pasarell—who alleges late Assemblyman Vito Lopez harassed her, and received a settlement in that case—joined WBAI’s Max & Murphy Show to talk about the legal and operational changes that also need to occur.

“It sounds like the ‘severe or pervasive’ standard that’s currently applied by New York State to sexual harassment is something that needs to go. We’ve heard that lots of times that this is a standard that fails to protect workers.” Also key, she said, is eliminating the Faragher Ellerth defense, “a very unjust piece of the defense that says that if a worker doesn’t report, the employer may be able to take advantage of this to say they’re not at fault.”

“This is obviously very bad because if an employer gets a reputation for not taking complaints seriously, then workers are going to stop reporting to that employer, and then the employer will get to turn around in court and use the defense that the worker didn’t report.”

Also important: improving the neutrality and timing of investigations. “Often we see investigations in workplaces, in government and without, being done by the same people in the company or the government office who would be connected to the harasser.”

For years, allegations of sexual misconduct have dogged Albany officials and their aides. I asked Pasarell whether we are just seeing the political version of the same disturbing trends seen in other industries (media, movies, churches), or others element unique to the electoral sphere. She answered:

What sexual harassment has in common across industries tends to be the power dynamics, people who have a lot of power to get away with things they want to do. There is a particular nature of government touching so many aspects of people’s lives. I mean in the sense of Assembly members and senators who have power over what companies do, what nonprofits do. What people fear [is] coming out against people who have power and influence in other areas. When taking on an Assembly member or senator who has harassed you, and thinking about whether to report, there’s a real sense of taking on not only that person but everyone in that harasser’s network and everyone who has something to lose by him, and that is a real obstacle to reporting and when we don’t get reporting, we don’t get rid of harassment in workplaces.

As to whether this week’s hearing is a sign of real change, Pasarell said, “I think we’ll really know for sure whether there’s been a culture change as a product of what legislation may come to pass this year.” A promising signal is that there are more women in power in the capitol, and they appear serious about taking this on.

Pasarell advised any one who thinks they have been harassed to get a lawyer, but she also said her working group is “always curious to hear what anyone has to say.” It can be contacted at sexualharassmentworkinggroup@gmail.com.

Listen below to our conversation with Pasarell, or hear the full show, where we also chatted with former Council speaker and current public-advocate candidate Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Sexual Harassment Working Group member Rita Pasarell.

Max & Murphy: Full Show of February 13, 2019

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