Fort Greene

City Council vows to fight workplace sexual harassment

Hearing focuses on issues raised by #MeToo Movement

March 1, 2018 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Public Advocate Letitia James (left) pictured with Jennifer Rodgers, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School at a forum last month, says sexual harassment in the workplace has economic consequences for victims who miss out on promotions and raises. Eagle file photo by Paula Katinas

The #MeToo movement has come to City Hall.

Two City Council committees held a join hearing Wednesday to learn the scope of the sexual harassment problem in the workplace and to highlight the need for legislation to combat the crime in both the government and private employment sectors.

The hearing was conducted by the committees on Women and Civil and Human Rights. Councilmember Mathieu Eugene (D-Kensington) is the chairman of the Committee on Civil and Human Rights. The Committee on Women is chaired by Councilmember Helen Rosenthal (D-Upper West Side).

Prior to the hearing, Council members and human rights advocates held a rally on the steps of City Hall to call for changes.

Council members are in the process of reviewing a package of 11 bills that are collectively being called the Stop the Sexual Harassment in NYC Act. The legislation is aimed at giving city employees the tools with which to speak out about sexual harassment in the workplace. The bills would also require the city to provide training and education to workers and develop better methods to report the crime.

The Council is also looking to require private sector employers to post a sexual harassment policy in their workplaces and to train employees on harassment policy on a regular basis.

“The reason we’re here today can be summed up in three words: Hashtag Me Too,” Rosenthal said.

Eugene, who said the city is at “a critical juncture in our efforts to ensure more protective measures against workplace harassment,” added that elected officials “must do more to change the value system that is reflected in our current policies towards harassment, so that we may help alleviate the burden that is put on those who have felt victimized by the system.”

The two committees heard testimony from representatives of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services and the Equal Employment Practices Commission.

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Also at the hearing, human rights advocates shared ideas on how to encourage victims to come forward and how better to protect their rights when file a complaint.

The speakers included former city comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman and the leaders of the following groups: Women’s City Club of New York, Latino Justice, Girl Be Heard, A Better Balance and the Gender Equality Law Center.

Rosenthal and Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo both pointed to the need to educate workers on their rights.

“We must inform and empower every employee of their rights to raise awareness and ensure accountability. No one should ever feel unsafe, threatened or alone after being subjected to gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment or sexual assault.  It is time to break the silence and end the cycle without remorse or retaliation,” said Cumbo (D-Fort Greene-Clinton Hill).

“Victims of sexual harassment are still too often unsure of their rights, let alone, of how to safely assert them. Bystanders are still too often uncertain of their responsibilities, let alone, how they can intervene,” Rosenthal said.

Councilmember Jumaane Williams (D-Flatbush) is the co-sponsor of a bill that would require employers to report incidents of sexual harassment to city agencies. “One of the factors that permits sexual harassment to fester and poison the workplace is because it is allowed to remain hidden in plain sight. We cannot solve the problem if we cannot see it for the urgent danger that it is,” he said.

Councilmember Robert Cornegy (D-Bedford-Stuyvesant) said it is time for the City Council to act.

“At a moment when so many are standing up and saying #MeToo, it is critical that we as elected officials seize this moment to implement policies aimed at rooting out sexual violence so that no one else has to join their voices in such a chorus. This package of legislation lays the groundwork for creating a city that stands firmly against sexual harassment and provides the appropriate mechanisms for handling instances of such harassment swiftly and justly,” he said.

Sexual harassment has also had an economic impact on the lives of victims, according to Public Advocate Letitia James, who said it sets up roadblocks to victims striving to get ahead in the workplace, causing them to miss out on promotions.

“Sexual harassment is pervasive, corrosive and has been a silent barrier on the road to career growth for far too long,” James said.

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