The following commentary was originally printed as a Times Union Editorial on February 18, 2015, written by NOW-NYS President, Sonia Ossorio:
Heastie can help women
By Sonia Ossorio, Commentary
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
In 2015 women are counting on bold action from all of our elected officials, especially from new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
Last week brought the news that the state is writing a check for more than half a million dollars to settle a sex harassment lawsuit brought by former legislative interns. This lawsuit is one of an alarming string of cases of legislators sexually harassing staff and interns, in a culture that let this behavior go unchecked for years.
Speaker Heastie can take bold and immediate action to set a new course, one that ushers in substantive change that will improve the lives of the women of New York.
The effects of sexual harassment are far too pervasive and costly to ignore, negatively impacting individuals, families and the economy. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found that one in four women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Many victims suffer from anxiety and depression or have trouble securing new employment, hindering their ability to support their family or advance their career.
First, Mr. Heastie must do what his predecessor did not: take a hard line on sexual harassment in his ranks. There must be zero tolerance for sexual harassment by our elected lawmakers.
He can also help women workers statewide by wasting no time in passing important legislation that closes a loophole that exempts 60 percent of businesses from state sexual harassment laws. Currently, New York businesses with fewer than four employees are exempt from these protections. It is precisely at these smaller companies — places that don’t have a chain of command or a Human Resources department — where employees are the most vulnerable.
Stopping sexual harassment is one way to address workplace inequities for women. Other bills that are on the table now will be a big step forward for women at work, including preventing pregnancy discrimination and putting stronger legal and monetary protections in place for cases of pay discrimination.
Many of these meaningful reforms would bring relief in particular to New York City’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable. In New York City alone, 40 percent of single mothers and their children live below the poverty line, and even more struggle on a weekly basis to stay above it.
There can be no doubt that immediate action will have a cumulative effect on the state’s economy and on the real lives of millions of women and children.
In Heastie’s call to action, he said lawmakers, “have a sacred duty… to create a legacy of results that will attest that we left this chamber and our state better than when we inherited it.”
Ending the business practice that forces women to choose between a healthy pregnancy and her job; making it harder for businesses to cheat women out of their fair pay and putting a stop to sexual harassment in the halls of Albany and at workplaces across the state are achievable goals that could start building that legacy right now.
Sonia Ossorio is president of the National Organization for Women, New York