The New York State Legislature has announced it will hold hearings on Feb. 13 about sexual harassment in state government.
The announcement was hailed by a group of women who have experienced or reported being victims of sexual harassment by state lawmakers.
Six Assembly and Senate committees will take testimony from those they call “relevant stakeholders,” and said they hope to engage in a “meaningful dialogue” on the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace. But they said they won’t take any individual sexual harassment complaints at the hearing.
The state’s first female Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, called for the hearings on the first day of the 2019 legislative session.
“We need to deal with the scourge of sexual harassment in the workplace,” Stewart-Cousins said on the Senate floor on Jan. 9. “We will hold all accountable.”
The Sexual Harassment Working Group, made up of seven former legislative staff members who experienced or reported sexual harassment while working for the state, expressed relief, saying in a statement that they are “thrilled” with the decision.
The group’s Erica Vladimer said the women have been asking for hearings for nearly a year.
“Public hearings aren’t the last step,” Vladimer said. “It’s the first step in really creating the strongest laws to protect workers across New York.”
Vladimer came forward last winter, when she accused former Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein of forcibly kissing her at a gathering of lawmakers and staffers to celebrate the passage of the state budget at an Albany bar in April 2015.
Klein, who lost his Senate seat in a 2018 primary, denies the accusation. The state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics is still investigating.
Vladimer said she’s tried to gain something positive out of the experience.
“I didn’t do it for the sole purpose of just telling my story, but I knew how important it was to put it out there in order to advance stronger laws,” said Vladimer.
She said the support of the other women in the group has strengthened her: “I honestly don’t know where I would be if I was doing this by myself.”
Klein, as the leader of a legislative conference, participated in closed-door meetings in 2018 with two other legislative leaders and the governor to craft new anti-sexual harassment rules for the state. The all-male meeting excluded Stewart-Cousins, who was then the minority leader. Stewart-Cousins has set the date for the hearings, along with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said repeatedly that anti-sexual harassment guidelines put in place last October are the best in the nation, but the Sexual Harassment Working Group disagrees. Vladimer said there’s more work to be done.
“We have an opportunity to pass laws that are the strongest in the nation, but we’re not there yet,” she said. “We can’t get there until victims have a seat at the table and their stories are center.”
Vladimer said in the days ahead, her group will work to get the word out about the hearings, and will encourage as many elected officials as they can to attend. She said they also will be asking leading experts on anti-sexual harassment policy and advocates to provide testimony.