New York state Senate chamber New York state Senate chamber. Photo Credit: Westpoint/CC

ALBANY — The Republican-led state Senate on Monday passed legislation aimed at reforming the state’s sexual harassment policies.

The legislation, which passed 56-2, would ban mandatory arbitration clauses in sexual harassment settlements; establish a statutory definition of sexual harassment; and prohibit anonymity of the accused in court-approved settlements. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Cathy Young—the highest-ranking woman in the Republican conference—would also prohibit confidentiality agreements unless the victim requests it; expand the protections to include independent contractors; and create a uniform sexual harassment policy for all branches of state government.

State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, voted against the bill, arguing that the proposal has “too many holes.” The legislation, which does not have a companion bill in the Democratic-dominated Assembly, is expected to be a main issue for budget negotiations, which is slated to begin in earnest in the coming days. A final fiscal plan for the state is due by April 1.

The proposal comes amid the #MeToo movement spurred by sexual harassment and assault charges leveled against movie producer Harvey Weinstein in October, which has since spread to include other powerful public figures in Hollywood, government and the media.

Young alleged during the debate on the bill that as a result of forced arbitration clauses, “Harvey Weinstein and people of that ilk,” have “gotten away with this over and over and over again.”   

Weinstein has repeatedly denied the allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and he has not been arrested or charged in connection with any of the allegations, although prosecutors in New York, Los Angeles and London are investigating the claims.

Riding on the national fervor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January unveiled his plans to prohibit confidentiality agreements related to sexual harassment claims in government, and to void forced arbitration policies in employee contracts.

Legal experts questioned Cuomo’s proposal, saying they could have unintended consequences, such as more litigation and greater public expense.

Krueger said the Senate bill goes further, in some aspects, than the governor’s proposal. During the debate on the legislation, Krueger doubted that the Joint Commission on Public Ethics could be equipped to handle complaints and investigations pertaining to sexual harassment.

The agency has previously been criticized for its handling of sexual harassment allegations. In 2013 the ethics panel issued a report against then-Assemblyman Vito Lopez about sexual harassment allegations made in his office. While the report did not name the victims, it described their jobs and when they held them, which made it easy for reporters and Capitol observes to identify the women.

So far this year, one state senator stands publicly accused of sexual harassment. State Sen. Jeff Klein was accused in mid-January of forcibly kissing a staff member in 2015, an allegation he has vehemently denied.