Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders are negotiating a new anti-sexual harassment policy for state and local government officials as part of the state budget. But several victims of sexual abuse and harassment in the Legislature have come forward with a letter asking that the issue be taken out of the budget.
The letter is signed by sexual harassment victims of former Assembly members Vito Lopez and Micah Kellner, as well as a woman who accuses Senate Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeff Klein of forcibly kissing her, something Klein denies.
It expresses concerns about some of the anti-sexual harassment measures currently under consideration by Cuomo and the Legislature, saying some of the bills might actually cut back on the rights of workers, instead of increasing protections.
They say the process should be more transparent, and stakeholders, such as victims, should have more input.
“These important civil rights issues should be resolved outside of the budget, as part of the normal legislative process,” they wrote.
Female lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly said they support the women who wrote the letter and their ideas, but disagree that talks on sexual harassment should be delayed.
Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chair Helene Weinstein, whose committee oversees the budget, said there’s momentum now on an issue that has stagnated in the Legislature for years.
“I’d like to see if we can do it in the budget,” Weinstein said. “My female colleagues feel very strongly that we should.”
The Assembly measure goes further than the governor’s and Senate’s proposals. While those measures would apply only to state and local government, the Assembly would extend the sexual harassment protections to New Yorkers who work for private businesses, too.
The Assembly proposal also expands the protections beyond sexual harassment to all types of workplace harassment.
“We want this to be for all employers,” Weinstein said. “Not just limited to government employees.”
Assemblywoman Deborah Glick said she also thinks negotiators should keep going and try to get an anti-sexual harassment policy into the budget. She said the issue has been discussed for a very long time in the Legislature, and now it’s time for action.
But, she said, if it appears that the measure will be significantly weakened in the budget deal, then Assembly members should not agree to it.
“There’s always an option to walk away from the negotiation if you’re not getting what you believe is a strong package,” Glick said.
No female lawmakers have been invited to the private leaders meetings where the sexual harassment policies and other budget items are being discussed. They are held off-site in the governor’s mansion. In addition to the two majority party legislative leaders, Senate IDC leader Klein also has been included in the closed-door discussions. The harassment charges against Klein are currently being investigated by a state ethics board.
The lone female legislative leader, Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, was told in February by an aide to the governor that she would be included this year to help shape the state’s anti-sexual harassment policies.
But Stewart-Cousins said, with less than a week to go before the budget is due, that hasn’t happened so far.
“I have not been invited to any of the leaders meetings,” Stewarts-Cousins said. “Of course I would want to be included in that.”
A spokeswoman for the governor, Abbey Fashouer, repeated the claim, in an emailed statement, that Stewart-Cousins “would be included” in budget talks, but would not specify exactly how the senator would be permitted to participate.
Despite that, Stewart-Cousins said the issue is too important to leave out of the budget, and she believes the talks should continue.
“We have to make sure that this workplace and every workplace is free of harassment, sexual and otherwise,” Stewart-Cousins said.
She said she hopes that a final version will create stronger laws against sexual harassment and ensure that violators are held accountable.