Despite the #metoo movement, the nation continues with a president who has been accused repeatedly as a sexual offender and now a just confirmed Supreme Court judge also so accused. Add Kavanaugh to Thomas and now one-third of the six men on our highest court have been accused of sexual misconduct. This generally leaves women in the United States with a lot to fear. We in New York have been told that state law can potentially protect us if national protections disappear. Is this so?
First the good news. Five years ago, on June 4, 2013, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, joined by members of the Women’s Equality Coalition, introduced a Women’s Equality Act that includes several amendments to the New York State Human Rights Law. If passed this bill would ensure women would be protected in many ways in New York State despite what may happen nationally related to gender equity in pay, employment protections for new mothers, protections for victims of trafficking, and protections of a women’s right to choose, to name a few.
The bad news is, though symbolically important, some elements of this New York bill appear so vague as to be impractical. For example, it seeks to eliminate pay inequality by somehow insisting that pay decisions be based on legitimate reasons (not gender) and that employees be allowed to share wage information without negative consequences to them.
Other discriminatory acts due to gender are addressed in this bill; but will they make a difference if adopted? If I sued an employer or a bank for sex discrimination and won, this bill would allow me to recover attorney fees. Again, that is, if I win. My boss cannot use my having children to keep me from getting a promotion. But the burden of proof is on me. If I try to rent an apartment and the landlord somehow finds out I am the one of every four women who was a victim of domestic violence and wants to use this fact to refuse me, he or she cannot. This landlord, according to this bill also cannot refuse me if I am the single source of income paying the rent. Again, how are these protections enforced in practice?
The good news is, other elements of the 2013 bill are more enforceable. For example, sexual harassment in all workplaces, even small businesses, would be illegal if it passes. Employers in New York would also have to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant women. Women seeking orders of protection from an abuser would potentially get the opportunity to do this electronically, removing some of the barriers many domestic violence victims experience in securing these orders. If made law this bill would assist in the prosecution of those who sex traffic minors and would potentially free many sex trafficking victims from being charged with prostitution. Lastly, and very important now that Brett Kavanaugh has been appointed, this bill would codify the existing Roe v. Wade law in New York State allowing women the continued freedom to choose abortion.
But here is more bad news, this Women’s Equity Bill still has gone nowhere, and alternatives have been stalled as well. Both the Senate and the Assembly versions of this bill never found their way out of committee, which means neither shows any sign of being considered for a vote in the near future unless the composition of the State Senate changes considerably in the November elections. The State Senate Finance committee has been sitting on bill S7511A and the Assembly’s Ways and Means committee has been sitting on bill A09511A since last January. These bills include many of the original features of the Women’s Equality Act, and also require health insurance policies to cover contraception, revise abortion laws, seek greater review of maternal deaths, place expertise in women’s health on the state board of medicine, restrict firearm ownership for individuals accused of domestic violence, increase criminal penalties for sex trafficking, and increase storage time of rape kits from police investigations to at least five years.
It seems there is some good news. A separate reproductive health act put forth in January 2017 (Senate: S2796, and Assembly: A1748) sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger, states that “an abortion may be performed by a licensed, certified, or authorized practitioner within 24 weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, or if there is an absence of fetal viability, or at any time when necessary to protect a patient’s life or health.” This passed in the Assembly but, sorry, more bad news, was defeated in the Senate health committee this past May in a nine to eight vote. All the nays were Republicans, save one, and all but two voting against women’s reproductive rights were men. Cuomo recently stated that he planned to reintroduce legislation protecting women in New York’s right to an abortion. Again, unless the makeup of the state senate looks a whole lot different in January 2019, these types of bills will continue to be stalled there.
Of the 63 New York State Senators currently, 14 (22 percent) are currently women. Forty-four of the 150 members of the Assembly (29 percent) are women. This is not to say that men cannot pass legislation that supports women’s equality. However, to date in New York, the male-dominated legislature has not done it.
That’s what’s at stake in this year’s legislative elections. In 2018, 104 women in New York State are running for a state Assembly or Senate seat. Not all of these women will support these bills. Hopefully many who do will win; the barrier will be broken and this November women’s equality in New York can finally be fairly protected. Unless this happens women in New York have plenty to fear from indifference to our security and true equality on a national level.