By McKENZIE DELISLE Press-Republican
PLATTSBURGH — The decision to report workplace sexual harassment is daunting, local attorney Jacqueline "Jaci" Kelleher says.
"You don’t have control over what happens with it and that can be scary for people. You worry about your job. You worry about whether your complaint might cause someone else to lose their job. . . It's a very difficult step for people to take."
Kelleher has for 20-plus years represented employers on multiple workplace issues, including claims of sexual harassment and other kinds of workplace discrimination. She has also performed numerous investigations of such complaints and offered trainings on how harassment can be identified and prevented.
"And, at my job when I was a teenager at a liquor store, I experienced it firsthand," she told the Press-Republican. "The supervisor would be the only one who was allowed to reach for the cigarettes; they were up above where the cash register was and he would always rub up against the girls."
Thinking back on that experience, Kelleher thought it critical people be armed with the tools and language necessary to identify harassing behavior.
"I was 19," she said of the incident. "I didn’t know that — I knew it felt horrible, but I really didn’t know that you could complain about those things and that other normal adults would think that was wrong behavior.
"Eventually one of the girls did complain and the guy was fired."
In late 2018, New York State adopted a new set of sexual-harassment prevention policies, requiring employers, among other things, offer annual prevention trainings and identify a designated individual to which employees can report such complaints.
In the years since those changes were made, Kelleher thought the whole subject of workplace sexual harassment had become more accessible, including simpler to identify and easier to talk about.
"People are learning the language. A big part of the training is designed to help people identify what sexual harassment looks like, because we don’t always know and we don’t always understand things from someone else's perspective."
In light of Tuesday's independent investigators report, which concluded Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had sexually harassed multiple women, Kelleher thought more victims might come forward.
"I believe that the governor’s conduct in the report is probably going to lead to a whole lot more people saying, 'Hey. My boss did something like what’s described in that report to me and I didn’t like it.' Something like three years ago with the #MeToo Movement. Many people were inspired by those stories."
In her more than 20 years dealing with workplace sexual harassment cases, Kelleher noted the majority "look nothing like what the governor is accused of having done."
"Many times it’s a much lower level of aggravation. There is not personal touching involved and there’s not often a huge imbalance of power involved, like with what we’re looking at in that case. The more power a person has, sometimes the more abusive they might be."
Nonetheless, grappling with how and when to report any such behavior can feel overwhelming, Kelleher added.
"It can be very daunting to have to go and talk to HR (human resources) or a supervisor and say, 'Someone more powerful than me in the workplace is bothering me,' or, 'Someone who I work with everyday is making comments I don’t like.'"
Kelleher recommended individuals enduring workplace sexual harassment, or discrimination of any kind, file a complaint within their company.
"You can always file a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights or the Equal Employment Opportunity Division, but they can’t come in quickly and fix the problem at your workplace. Someone at your own company, when you go report the problem, they can say, 'Maybe we have to separate people,' or, 'We’ll do an investigation right away,' and within a few weeks or a month, the issue should be in the works towards getting addressed.
"If you file a complaint with the Division of Human Rights or sue your employer, that process takes many months to many years. It’s a hard way to fix a problem at work."
When those who file such complaints are asked, "What would you like to come out of this complaint?" Kelleher said the answer is often the same.
"I would say in more than 90% of the cases the person says, 'I just want it to stop.' In fact, they say, 'I really don’t want this person to get fired. I just want it to stop.'"
Kelleher believed every person had the right to go to work and perform the job for which they were hired.
"If you find that people in your workplace are putting pressure on you for sexual favors or treating you differently based on your gender, then it’s time to make a complaint with the employer or go to a public agency."