After the rise of the #MeToo movement and the downfall of public figures like NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the New York City Council took swift action to protect New Yorkers from the kind of abuse that has affected 81% of women and 43% of men in the U.S.
This Sunday on “Represent NYC,” Council Member Helen Rosenthal (District 6) talks with Gender Equality Law Center’s Allegra Fishel and ALIGN’s Maritza Silva-Farrell about sexual harassment in the workplace, how the city’s new laws will help protect workers and what more needs to be done to bring an end to this problem.
Helen: Hello and welcome to this edition of Represent NYC
on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. I'm council member,
Helen Rosenthal, representing the Upper West Side in the New
York City Council, and I chair the council's Committee on
Helen: Today, we'll be talking about sexual harassment in the
workplace, what the city is doing to combat it, and what more
needs to be done. Earlier this done, mayor de Blasio signed the
city council's Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act Into Law. The
protections in this Act are by far the broadest, the most far-
reaching, in the country. For the first time, all workers, both in
the private and public sectors, in workplaces big and small, are
protected against sexual harassment by the city's Human Rights
law. Contract and freelance workers are protected too. Every
workplace will have to provide training on what sexual
harassment is and what to do if you have experienced or
witnessed it. We are also requiring real accountability for city
workers. This includes annual reporting from every city agency
and anonymous surveys of every one of the city's 330 000 plus
workers. But let's be real. No piece of legislation, alone, can fully
address systemic issues like patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism,
so we're already thinking about next steps. I'm very pleased to
be joined by Allegra Fishal, executive director of the Gender
Equality Law Center, and Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director
of ALIGN, which is an alliance of labor and community-based
organizations. Allegra, Maritza, thanks so much for joining me
Allegra: Thank you.
Maritza: Think you're glorious.
Helen: I guess I'd like to start with, really for both
of you ... But Maritza, if you could start. In your years of working
with community-based organizations, what do you hear about
sexual harassment in the workplace?
Maritza: The work that we do in the city with community and labor,
we're also seeing that many workers had been afraid or are
stepping out. It doesn't matter if you're a woman, a man, a
transgender person. Across the spectrum of gender, we see
that, when you are in a workplace and you are depending on
pay, you don't want to actually speak up, because you might
lose your jobs. So, retaliation is something that we've seen. You
see that a lot in the restaurant industry, in the retail industry,
and it's something that has become even common in many
places. When union folks are organizing and they have the laws
and paper, they always ask, “a worker gonna come
Helen: You know, what I like about what you're saying is, you're giving
examples of specific industries and how we might need to have
industry-focused legislation. You know, when you talk about
restaurants, my understanding is, the concern is the cooks in
the kitchen who are sexually harassing the waitresses. That's
how it occurs. You know, for construction, women in the
construction field, they get it a little bit of a different way.
Maritza: But you get it also from the customers. I know a person, actually
recently, shared a story. She was really afraid of speaking up
because, not only her boss was sexual harassing her, but also
Maritza: She would come up and talk to the boss and say, “This client
here, these customers are saying things to me”, and the
employer was like, “Well, do your job. That's what's gonna get
you tips.” That's just the systematic changes that we need to be
Helen: That's right.
Maritza: I think the legislation sets the path. Now, is how do we
implement it, the question.
Helen: That's right. That's a great segue. Allegra, same question. What
sorts of cases are coming across your desk?
Allegra: Well, as a legal organization that represents clients in sexual
harassment clients, we are receiving a lot of calls, but they are
the same types of calls that we were receiving before the new
laws, the MeToo, and the Time's Up movements. They tend to
be workers who are not coming forward and complaining about
sexual harassment against somebody who's high-profile, like a
power politician or a Hollywood mogul. They tend to work in
similar industries, restaurant, business, janitorial,
manufacturing. They're essentially employees that are very
disempowered and don't really garner media attention.
Allegra: That's kind of consistent. We're not really seeing that much of a
change. What I am seeing is that women are calling us who now
realize they were sexual harassed, maybe as much as 10 years
ago and we unfortunately have to tell them that there is no
legal redress because of the Statute of Limitations.
Helen: That's a great point. One of our laws changed the Statute of
Limitations for the New York City Human Rights Law, so that,
perhaps, you could use the New York City Human Rights Law as
opposed to a state or federal one, but only to three years, from
one to three years.
Allegra: Right. But, in terms of filing with the agency, where many
people who are pro-bono, meaning they don't have a lawyer, go
to file; that's a huge amount of time. One to three years, so
that's a tremendous change.
Helen: Have you seen an uptick, over time? In the last five years, have
the last one and a half years been particularly busy?
Allegra: I would say there is definitely an uptick of claims because I think
more women and other people who are victimized in the
workplace are hearing media stories are saying, “Hey, maybe I
was sexual harassed.” They're identifying with it. But it's not as
huge as you might think. I've been representing victims of
sexual harassment pretty consistently for two decades and,
many of the same people who were being harassed, are still
being harassed. But then, of course, I don't have the benefit yet
of some of the changes under the city law.
Helen: That's exactly right. Over the next year, the new laws will go
Helen: For example, by, I think, mid-2018, even private sector
employers will be required to publicly post the city's anti-
harassment provisions and they will be required to provide the
sexual harassment training and that will go forward once every
year. Do you think that'll have an impact?
Maritza: That, it's something that we have to do. I think it would be
important for not only the employers to set up the trainings
with the workers, with the management, and ensure that
employers understand that they are protected under the law
and that they should come forward and actually reward that,
rather than retaliate that. I think it's, again, I feel like the idea of
shifting. The systematic changes that we need to be doing in the
city, I think those are the important pieces because, again, a
piece of paper, a legislation, as you say earlier, is not gonna
change. It's not gonna change the way people behave, so what
we're trying to do, I think is, through the training, not only to
say, “This is the law that we're creating”, but also is like,
“Because this actually is gonna be important for your business.”
It's gonna be important for the culture of our communities.
Maritza: It has to be also very inclusive. We gotta ensure that community
folks who might not know English are able to understand the
law. How are we expanding the trainings in different languages,
depending on the locations and the places where people work,
below which industries are traditionally more of different other
language speaking. Spanish-speaking, Chinese, and other
languages. How do we also making that ensuring that these
trainings are gonna be inclusive to all gender, to all languages,
will be really critical and ensure that the employer is required to
do it. I know that there should be some penalties connected to
it, because that's the only way they will respond. That will help
with the shifting of the culture.
Helen: The issue of penalties, I think, is one where I'm not sure we
were able to sink our teeth in that well. That could be
something we need to do next. And, enforcement, in general,
it's not like we wrote into the law that there's gonna be a city
employee now who goes around to every workplace and makes
sure they're complying. Instead, this will all be complaint-
driven, so we're gonna have to educate everyone to let us know
if it's not happening. How do you think these laws are gonna
work, Allegra? How will they help?
Allegra: I think they're really a tremendous advancement. I think we still
have to see how they're enforced and I agree with everything
that Maritza said about they have to be accessible to people, in
terms of language. I'll tell you the truth: I'm not entirely thrilled
that the requirement is that they just get onto a computer
program, essentially; the interactive training can be done
online. I'm a strong believer that more effective training would
be if they had to do in-person, where workers sit together and
talk about sexual harassment. Online makes me think you can
go into your office and close the door. How do we even know?
Can you just set the button and then go out and do something
else? So, enforcement, because you're talking about behavior.
You're talking about personal interactions. People understand
you shouldn't do something, but they don't always understand
why or how to think differently.
Allegra: That's something that I think is really important and I also agree
with you, Maritza. There has to be a penalty for not doing it.
One way would be to read into the long-terms and enforcing
the law that employers don't do it. That could be one type of
evidence to prove that it is a discriminatory work environment.
It would talk a little bit of drafting to deal with that but I think,
overall, to have sexual harassment training is a tremendous
advancement. Having a poster, just like you know that you get
to be paid minimum wage; it's right out there on the board. Just
like you know you can apply for Worker's Comp. It becomes
normalized then that this is the way the culture should be, and I
think that's huge, so I think that's great.
Helen: You know, I think that was majority leader
Cumbo's bill. That was just terrific. I don't think it was written
into the law, but I'm pretty sure that the Commission on Human
Rights has the intention for the online training to be interactive
in the sense that, at certain places through it, you will have to
interact; it requires a response from the person.
Allegra: Right, right.
Helen: But there's no question that the in-person trainings are better.
The Commission on Human Rights actually said that, if any
private employer calls them, that they would be happy to go out
and do an in-person training; they do that now. Hopefully,
they'll get called upon more to do it. What we're always juggling
is, for these smaller workplaces that we want to keep in
business, we're doing all the right things. Minimum wage must
be paid, we have paid sick days now, family Leave. All of these
things are terrific and I think owners want to do it. At some
point for some owners, they need a little help. Maybe the
online version will be satisfactory for those employment firms
or businesses. But if a worker came forward to the Human
Rights Commission and said, “We're getting the sexual
harassment trainings; no difference”, that'll be valuable. The
Commission will pursue that case.
Maritza: I'm gonna add something. I feel like it's also very critical to think
about the stakeholders, like who the city can partner with and,
as somebody who works very closely with the Building
Construction Trades unions, the Public Sector union workers, I
think, partnering with unions, in terms of how do we do the
trainings, because there is many trainings that are happening
already with union members, particularly right now with the
Public Sector Worker's union; Janice, right, and the thread of
that Supreme Court Law. How do that also connects to the
trainings so the employees understand sort of the law,
understand what they can do.
Maritza: In terms of construction, we just talked about it a little bit
earlier, construction is a very difficult industry. It's a dangerous
industry where women recently are coming up more and more.
I'm particularly very proud to see so many women taking on
Maritza: So how do we ensure that women in the construction
industry continue doing those jobs without being sexually
harassed. I'm not saying that that is happening all the time, but I
think this also provides an opportunity for them to have
something else to hold onto in the workplaces. I feel like that's
also gonna be helping a little bit for the unions in the industry to
be able to support because I know that President of the Building
Construction Trades community New York City and different
affiliates are very much in support of figuring out ways to
support and enhance the women in the industry. How do we
ensure that it happens will be very critical.
Helen:That's a great point. You and I have already reached out to a
couple of unions. I've found the building trades to be very
receptive and also retail workers that that union is very excited
to help get the word out to their employees. So, you're right.
The partnerships there are gonna be critical and it's gonna be
critical that the Commission on Human Rights has trainings that
are specific to specific industries. Yeah; that's a great point.
Helen: I mentioned majority leader Cumbo, one of her bills. But there
were 11 different bills. But they were championed by the
speaker, Corey Johnson. He's new in his term. This is just, what,
his fifth month, fourth month, as speaker. This was his first
package of bills that he put through the council, which tells me
a lot about where his priorities are and, I've told him this
endlessly but, it's a real statement about how serious the city is
in addressing these issues, so I think that's exciting.
Helen: Allegra, given that we're fighting the larger issue of gender
equality, do you think these bills fit into that picture that they ...
How do they fit in? Here I'm thinking more about sort of the
spectrum of harassment that happens to women. You could sort
of say workplace harassment escalating up to more physical
Allegra: Sexual harassment or gender-based harassment, I just wanna
pause to say that the law covers a broader spectrum of ... It's
not just women victims. Certainly women victims are probably
the majority and those are mostly the people we hear about,
but it also covers men and it covers people who are in one or
more of the LGBTQ communities who have historically been
harassed on the basis of gender. There's some statistics that say
as many as 40% of people in one or more of those communities
harassed in the workplace at any given time.
Allegra: So, I just wanna give a shout-out to the laws that they cover a
broader spectrum. It doesn't have to be sexual conduct. It can
be gender-based conduct. But I think the biggest thing is that
sexual harassment or gender-based harassment is probably one
of the most pernicious forms of gender discrimination because,
besides for the horrible experience that someone experience, it
often leads to them being pushed out of their job. They either
leave because the situation's intolerable, or they begin to take a
lot of time off. They have absences. They don't know how to
deal with the situation. They're fired for absenteeism. Or, not
surprisingly, their work deteriorates because they feel so
stressed out on the job. Of course, losing your job and not being
able to support yourself or your family is probably the biggest
issue of inequity, in terms of gender.
Helen: Right, why people are afraid to come forward.
Helen: I spoke this morning at an event, there were couple of hundred
people in the room, and afterwards, this woman, probably in
her mid-70s, came up to me and told me the most horrific story
of what had happened to her in the private sector. Of course,
she got no help, whatsoever, left her job, and had tears in her
eyes when she was thanking me for these bills because there's
hope that, for the next generation of women, they won't be
pushed out of their jobs for these reasons.
Helen: If we brainstorm just a little bit and think about next steps,
where do you think we need to go to strengthen these laws to
make it even easier for women to come forward?
Maritza: I think it also might be important to think about companies or
places where there is some public funding that's been given;
how do we connect the public funding to be able to hold them
accountable in some way or another within this law. I do think
that it might also be really critical to think about other kinds of
laws that can help across gender. I think it's really important,
right now, when there's other issues that workers in the low-
wage industry are facing.
Maritza: I just wanna lift one more thing in terms of like, I just shared the
story of the restaurant worker. But it is interesting because the
restaurant workers face this kind of thing and workers who are
in the tip industry, they actually have to take on the
harassment, whichever kind of harassment that looked like-
Helen: To get their tips?
Maritza: ... to be able to get the tips. That's the narrative. Thinking a little
bit how this kind of legislations and bills can also help educate
people about why it's important not to connect the tips to their
work and how they need to be paid. So, connecting more to
intersectional analysis, I think, of the issue; it's not just only
women, it's not only one thing or one kind of harassment, it's,
overall, how people in the workplace are treated. You talk
about the paid sick days, all the benefits that we're trying to
work to enhance, really, for a worker to have a quality of life.
That's one of them-
Helen: I like what you're saying. You're basically saying, if I'm
understanding you right, that there are other efforts that your
organization and others are making that don't necessarily sound
like a gender-harassment-gender-based-equality issue, but
really, they have that impact as well. So, changing tipped
workers over to salary workers, that would make all the
Maritza: The other thing I think would be important ... Because who we
are here in New York, I think we need to amplify this, because
this is really essentially a model for the country. We've seen
that, after the election of Donald Trump ... I don't like to say his
name, but after he got elected, many of the people who are
used to harass others because they don't like LGBTQ folks,
because they ... Trump really feels very emboldened, in terms of
coming against women in many ways. Think it's important for
the city to amplify this so that the country actually sees that we
need to take this at the local level. It really shows that the local
legislations, local campaigns can be a model for the entire
country while we have an administration that is just so hard on
many of our people.
Helen: Yeah. Again, you're sort of another lane of issues, but it comes
back to this as well. I was speaking with the commanding officer
of the Hate Crimes Unit to this point about number 45, and if
you look at hate crimes, the bump up is three months before his
election to three months after, there was a serious bump up in
hate crimes, so I think that's exactly right. We need the
municipalities to step up and do protections.
Helen: Allegra, what are the other bills that we're looking to develop
will help protect individuals reporting harassment from
retaliation? We wanna require a rebuttable presumption of
harassment. In other words: the alleged abuser will have to
prove that that person did not harass the survivor. Does that
make sense? Would that be helpful? In other words, it's not
that the survivor has to say, “No, no no. He really did it!”…
Sorry, I went back to gender pronouns but-
Helen: “That person really did harass me instead of that.” The
alleged harasser will have to prove that they did not do it, that
there's a rebuttal presumption that they did.
Allegra: I think that might be hard to pass. I'm not sure that the law
would entertain that, but I think that, often, sexual harassment
cases are not that hard to set up. The language is often much
more explicit, the conduct is much more offensive than in other
areas of discrimination. I think it really has to do with courts and
administrative bodies believing that that kind of conduct is
really sexual harassment. I think that's gonna be more of a a
Helen: For the courts as well?
Allegra: For the courts as well. One of the things I love about the new
law is that it has things that will help the culture shift for the
employer. Because there have been terrific laws on the books
for decades. The New York City Human Rights law has been on
the books for decades. It's one of the most, in terms of
lawyering, progressive laws in the country, bar none. But,
nonetheless, women and men and LGBTQ individuals don't
come forward because of what you were saying. There's a lot of
fear. There's shame, there's fear of reprisal, and there's all kinds
of other factors. That's why, I think to really make a dent in
terms of prohibiting sexual harassment, there has to be a
culture shift. The onus cannot be on someone coming forward.
Helen: That's right.
Allegra: That has just created a culture of silence and shame. That's why
having training ... I noticed part of the training requires
bystander intervention. Having a zero-tolerance, training
supervisors, and managers that, if they see it, they gotta stop it.
It's not the person experiencing it who may feel so
disenfranchised they can't come forward. That's what I really
see as the next kind of stage of evolving, both in terms of our
society and our laws.
Helen: That's exciting. We agree with you 100%. By We, I mean my
legislative team as we've been thinking about it. But that's really
helpful to hear. You can imagine having a poster right next to
the poster that says, “Here's what to do if somebody chokes.”
Having a poster right there saying what to do if you're sexually
harassed. If you Google around, there actually is one that's
modeled off of the choking poster-
Helen: They both look very similar and-
Allegra:They won't even know the difference!
Allegra: That's great.
Helen: So that people will look at it sort of thinking they're gonna see
one thing and then seeing another and that opening up their
eyes, which is really exciting.
Allegra: It's hugely important because I can tell you
that it's really amazing. So many times, women will come to me
and say, “I’m short on my pay” or, “They didn't pay a benefit”
or, “They marked me absent and I wasn’t” sexually harassed,
they feel too shameful to come forward because they feel like
they're not gonna be believed. Normalizing a culture that says,
“You march right in their the same way as if you think you're
short on your pay”, would be really revolutionary.
Helen: Which, by the way, that's on the spectrum as well. Intentionally
paying one gender something different than the other-
Allegra: Right, right.
Helen: I certainly have a story about that; I know many women do.
Helen: Maritza and Allegra, thank you so much for your time. Thank
you for sharing your experience and your knowledge about this
incredibly important issue. Maybe we'll do this again a year
from now and check in to see how we're doing.
I wanna thank all the viewers out there, too, for watching
Represent NYC on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. Good-bye.