Powers’ first bill takes aim at sexual harassment

Council Member Keith Powers earlier this week in committee (Photo by Emil Cohen/City Council)

By Sabina Mollot

For his first bill as a City Council member, Keith Powers is hoping to change language in the city’s Human Rights Law so that employees of very small companies who are facing sexual harassment can file suit against the harassers. Previously the law did not protect employees of companies that employ fewer than four people.

The bill, along with 10 others aiming to fight sexual harassment, will be discussed at a hearing on Thursday. The legislation package, including Powers’ bill, has been heavily inspired by the #MeToo movement, with Powers saying he became aware of the loophole last fall in a conversation about the movement with a friend who’s a civil rights attorney.

The friend had mentioned that state law was tweaked several years ago to end immunities from companies with fewer than four employees, but the city had yet to follow suit.

Powers, who’d just been elected, made a note then to tackle the issue once in office.

“It is somewhat remarkable that these protections wouldn’t apply to companies of certain sizes,” said Powers. “I’m guessing it was because of concern small businesses were going to be impacted by litigation, but it shouldn’t (exempt) some businesses for behavior we find unacceptable.” Especially, he added, since there are a “staggeringly high” number of businesses in New York City with fewer than four employees — 60 percent.

Along with wanting city law to match the state’s, Powers said this bill could increase benefits for victims compared to what state law allows.

“(The city) tends to be more generous than the state for punitive damages and attorneys’ fees, which you can’t get under state law,” said Powers. “All municipalities need to do better on protecting workers from sexual harassment.”

While he hasn’t yet spoken to the mayor’s office about the legislation, Powers isn’t expecting any opposition there, though he said he suspects he may hear some testimony from industry representatives at the hearing.

Other bills that will be up for debate on Thursday as part of “The Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC” Act, include:

  • Clarifying in the Human Rights Law that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination the Human Right Commission has the power to prevent and eliminate, sponsored by Council Member Carlina Rivera
  • Requiring city agencies to conduct anonymous surveys to see if employees feel there is harassment in the workplace and develop a plan to respond to those findings, sponsored by Women’s Committee Chair Helen Rosenthal
  • Mandating training for employees of city agencies to understand what sexual harassment is and how to respond to complaints, sponsored by Speaker Corey Johnson
  • Mandating private employers to do the same for employees, supervisors and managers
  • Having companies’ policies on employees’ rights and responsibilities regarding sexual harassment visibly posted at the workplace
  • Requiring city agencies to conduct risk assessments of potential factors that could increase incidents of harassment
  • Requiring transparency regarding complaints at city agencies
  • Requiring city contractors to disclose policies and procedure aimed at preventing harassment
  • Revamping the Human Rights Commission’s website to make information on resources and how to file complaints more available and easy to use.
  • Asking Congress to pass, and the president to sign, the “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act of 2017.”

This would make any agreement an employer requires an employee to sign that states any disputes between the employee and employer — including claims of sexual harassment — must be settled in private arbitration outside the court system, invalid and unenforceable.

The City Council has cited an Economic Policy Institute survey of nonunion private sector employers that found that more than 56 percent of American workers (over 60 million people) are subject to mandatory arbitration agreements.

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