Credit to Suffolk County for paying some attention to the #metoo movement. However, the new measures are an insignificant drop in the bucket. Suffolk County recently passed two bills requiring: (1) new County employees to receive a “know your rights” pamphlet upon hire, and (2) the Suffolk Legislators to receive an annual report regarding sexual harassment complaints. Neither bill will provide women (or employees generally) the protections they need. And here’s why…
Employees aren’t going to be less fearful of complaining because they received a “know your rights” pamphlet. Most employees already know that sexual harassment is unlawful and they can complain to their mangers or Human Recourse Departments. Employees who don’t complain aren’t failing to complain because they are unaware of their rights. They decline to complain because they are fearful of retaliation. Employees are supporting their families with their earnings. Single mothers, for example, are often going to be less likely to risk her job security. And a pamphlet that explains their rights regarding workplace sexual harassment isn’t likely to change that.
Additionally, each legislator seeing statistics at the end of the year isn’t going to help employees while they are being harassed or encourage them to complain. Also, statistics only tell a small part of the story. The statistics won’t show any instance where an employee declined to complain, nor will they show instances where an employee complained and the complaint was buried, or the employee complaint was not recorded.
The County and its employers need training and need to take the training seriously. County managers need to be taught to worry more about ensuring compliance, rather than protecting the County from liability. The well-being and safety of employees should come first, and this bill is nothing more than window dressing. County managers will best protect the County by taking harassment seriously and punishing harassers, even if that creates short term liability to the County. In the long run, compliance and transparency are the only ways to make a positive change in the workplace.
The NYC Human Rights law provides NYC employees much greater protections than Suffolk County employees. If the lawmakers want to make a difference that matters, they should provide employees with the same protections that NYC employees have. One example of a significant difference: under state and federal law, some sexual harassment is lawful. It becomes unlawful only when it is “severe or pervasive.” Sexual harassment shouldn’t have to rise to that level to be unlawful, which is the case under state and federal law. Also, NYC law provides punitive damages and attorneys’ fees for all unlawful harassment. Punitive damages are a strong incentive to force employees to comply with the law. If people violate the law, there should be appropriate punishment, which should include punitive damages for malicious conduct.
Suffolk County should not be taking a victory lap over these minor measures, which are unlikely to have any significant impact. Real change is needed.