With Momentum from #MeToo, NYC Human Rights Commission Holds Hearing on Workplace Sexual Harassment

Attorney Dina Bakst stood behind the lectern, her voice shaking. She told the story of Louisa, a low-wage supermarket worker whose former supervisor had frequently instructed her to go downstairs to his office so he could rub his genitals on her.

When Louisa became pregnant, Bakst said, she told her supervisor to stop touching her because she feared it would harm her baby. For weeks, he ridiculed her for being pregnant. And two days later, he fired her for requesting a day off for a prenatal doctor’s appointment.

Bakst said Louisa’s case was just one of many sexual harassment cases she has handled as the co-founder of A Better Balance, an legal advocacy organization pushing for policy changes to better benefit low-wage workers.

Bakst described her work at a hearing Wednesday sponsored by the New York City Commission on Human Rights at the City University of New York Law School in Long Island City. The event was inspired by the momentum of the #MeToo movement and headlines detailing the demise of many powerful men in Hollywood and beyond. Representatives of industries  from construction to modelling and individuals came to testify about their own experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace. Many also presented possible solutions to existing city policies in front of the six, all female, commissioners and more than 250 people in the audience.

Dana Bakst (right) site next to Maya Raghu at the hearing on sexual harassment in the workplace. (The Ink/Meira Gebel).

Many women still face barriers beyond summoning the courage to speak up, Bakst said. Some do not know where to turn. Many may not even have the language skills to ask for help.

“This is why there needs to be safe platforms for women to tell their stories and not face retaliation,” she said.

“Power is relative,” Bakst continued. “Male supervisors control your career trajectory as a woman so there needs to be a financial motivation for companies to stop harassment from taking place.”

This thought was echoed by other speakers, including Amy Hong, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society.

“One should have multiple avenues,” Hong said. “Women who work at small companies with less than four employees, there are no ways for a victim to complain. Make a hotline.”

The section of the sexual harassment clause of New York City’s Human Rights Law Hong referred to applies to employers with four or more employees. So what if harassment, let alone assault, happens when you are only one employee and one employer, as is the case with many domestic workers?

“Human Rights Law should be amended to allow employees to hold an individual accountable,” said Maya Raghu, director of Workplace Equality at the National Women’s Law Center. Raghu said she came to the hearing to represent one of her clients, a babysitter, whose boss once exposed himself to her and his child after emerging from a bathtub.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James also presented testimony in front of the commission, which included members from the city’s departments of Consumer Affairs, Human Rights and Healthcare Management and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.

“We need to dismantle the systems that allow sexual harassment to continue with impunity,” said James. “We are here to learn from you. People need to see that there are actual human beings behind government.”

James said the testimony would be included in a report set to be released early next year detailing the Human Rights Commission’s recommendations for citywide policy changes.

One widespread recommendation from many of those who testified was to mandate sexual harassment training in both private and public sectors.

“I was shocked to hear the Department of Education doesn’t do any training with students and teachers around sexual harassment,” said Martha Kamber, the ‎executive director of YWCA’s Brooklyn branch, a non-profit that works closely with young girls of color.

Simone Pero, president of the trade association New York Women in Film & Television, agreed. She said training would end a “culture of silence” in an industry historically known for deterring women from coming forward with complaints out of fear for their future careers.

Throughout the four-hour event, many who testified spoke of a disconnect between the government and industry. Leah Rambo, director of training for Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation Workers, said the city repeatedly gives billions of dollars of construction contracts to companies facing sexual harassment discrimination suits.

Though the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace is a frustrating, ever-present concern for all women, every person who spoke, from commissioners to citizens, expressed gratitude for every courageous woman who has come forward. “For those of us who have never walked the red carpet, this is our moment, too,” Kamber said.