Andrew Cuomo resigned in the wake of harassment allegations, and new Gov. Kathy Hochul has vowed to overhaul Albany’s policies. What protections exist for New York City workers?
Workplace sexual harassment has been in the news over the last few weeks, primarily because of the explosive report out of the state Attorney General’s office, which found that former Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed a number of female staffers and state employees, including those who say he groped or kissed them without consent.
Cuomo—who has repeatedly denied the allegations, though admitted to having been “too familiar with people”—resigned Monday. His former lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, was sworn in Tuesday as the first female governor of the state, and she vowed in her inaugural speech to “overhaul” state government’s policies on sexual harassment and ethics, “with accountability and no tolerance for individuals who cross the line.”
Most experts on sexual harassment in the workplace, a form of gender-based discrimination, say that it is underreported. This is primarily because victims of harassing behavior at work—which can include sexual advances, offensive jokes, physical assault, or unwelcome touching, among other things—can experience feelings of guilt, shame, and humiliation, and may fear being retaliated against, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).
In the case of the former governor, according to the independent investigation, employees of the executive chamber may have retaliated against one of Cuomo’s alleged victims by leaking her confidential personnel documents to the press. In other instances detailed in the report, some senior staffers directed other employees to secretly record calls with the alleged victims.
Retaliation for reporting harassment, which includes firing or demotion, is illegal.
New York City residents who experience sexual harassment at work can report incidents to the city’s Commission on Human Rights, which can investigate. Here’s an overview of how that process works.
What’s considered workplace sexual harassment?
The Commission on Human Rights defines sexual harassment under the law as “ unwelcome verbal or physical behavior based on a person’s gender.” This can include, according to CCHR:
- Unwelcome or inappropriate touching of employees or customers
- Threatening or taking adverse action after someone refuses a sexual advance
- Making lewd or sexual comments about someone’s appearance, body, or what they’re wearing
- Conditioning promotions or other opportunities on sexual favors
- Displaying pornographic images, cartoons, or graffiti on computers, emails, cell phones, bulletin boards, etc.
- Sexist remarks or derogatory comments based on gender
How can I report workplace sexual harassment, and who can I report it to?
“Every New Yorker who experiences sexual harassment deserves an opportunity to seek accountability and the Commission on Human Rights exists for that purpose, no matter who you are,” said Alicia McCauley, a spokesperson at the city’s Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) in a statement to City Limits. “Our dedicated and trained staff bring a trauma-informed approach to investigating and pursuing claims of sexual harassment, recognizing how this type of harassment causes deep, long-lasting harm.”
New Yorkers can report harassment in the workplace to the Commission, which enforces the city’s human rights law at 212-416-0197 or at nyc.gov/reportdiscrimination.
Reports can also be filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or to the state Division of Human Rights. Those who have experienced workplace harassment can also file a case in court with an attorney, if they choose to.
I am concerned about retaliation. If I make a complaint, how am I protected?
Again, retaliation is illegal, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.
Officials at the CCHR accept anonymous complaints from those who have experienced or witnessed harassment. Even if a victim of sexual harassment at work has signed a mandatory arbitration agreement, they can still report sexual harassment to the Commission in most cases, officials said.
Attorneys and specialists at the Commission speak over 30 languages, “and we never ask about immigration status,” McCauley said.
How often is workplace sexual harassment reported to city officials?
In the last fiscal year, the Commission received 503 reports of gender-based harassment, the CCHR spokesperson said. Around 340 of those were workplace-related, and the commission ultimately filed 176 cases of gender-based harassment.
“The vast majority of these cases, 143 of the 176, were cases of discrimination in employment,” the spokesperson said.
The Commission has expanded its harassment work in recent years. “Since the resurgence of the #MeToo movement in 2017,” McCauley said, “the Commission has opened over 600 claims of gender-based discrimination; awarded over $7 million to victims of gender-based discrimination in the workplace; and collected over $1.3 million in civil penalties,” as of June 2021.
And in 2019, it formed a Gender-Based Harassment Unit which is focused on investigating and litigating claims of harassment.
“In addition to monetary relief, the Commission provides remedies that address policies and workplace cultures that allow sexual harassment to persist,” McCauley said. “This includes requiring policy procedural changes, trainings, postings, and restorative justice measures that hold violators accountable, end the stigma associated with reporting sexual harassment, and build transparency.”