Hundreds of state workers say they've had enough of perpetual bullying and abuse from their managers, and started an early legislative push Thursday to change state law and provoke a culture shift they say is decades overdue.
Hundreds of members of the state Public Employees Federation, or union that represents New York state employees, marched near the state Capitol and around the Empire State Plaza on Thursday calling for an end to a pervasive culture of workplace bullying and harassment.
It was the first time they brought the issue into the public light, as workers say instances of abuse from supervisors have only gotten worse.
"It's time to prioritize the well-being of our workforce, and that begins with a culture shift where every voice is heard and valued, regardless of their rank or position," PEF member Leslie Crane said.
Many workers shared their experiences of abuse, saying they've filed complaints with local and state management, but employees continue to get victimized and push workers to leave.
"We've witnessed retaliation, trying to go to our supervisors to get corrective action of some sort," Crane continued. "All we want is a response and a resolution, and it seems that it just continues. People being put down, people not getting the support that they need. It just creates a culture that really isn't conducive for the state or having good people who want to stay."
PEF, representing 50,000 state workers, held Thursday's rally to coincide with the union's quarterly board of directors meeting in Albany.
Members say some managers have retaliated by suspending workers who speak up, causing them to go months without pay.
Workers added toxic work environments have been a largely unspoken, yet accepted, part of being a state worker.
PEF President Wayne Spence has been a state employee since 1993, and says he hasn't known anything different.
"I came into what was a toxic work environment, and it just became natural," he recounted Thursday. "It shouldn't be natural. And some of these young folks are just not taking it. And coming out of COVID where people got to work from home and got a chance to do things and get their work done and feel good about themselves, to come back into that environment? People have said 'no.'"
Workers say instances of bullying, abuse and retaliation have gotten worse in the last several years, even after a change in public discourse following the #MeToo movement, and the resignation of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo after an investigation found he sexually harassed multiple women.
Union leaders attribute the increase to harrasment happening digitally outside work hours and intolerance from the younger generation of workers, combined with decades of inaction.
"Unfortunately, it has grown because nothing has been done through to today," PEF Chief of Staff Chris Leo said.
Representatives from the state Office of Employee Relations and Gov. Kathy Hochul's office did not answer questions about workers' claims that instances of bullying and harassment have increased in the state workplace, and did not respond to the number of complaints of workplace harassment or discrimination filed in the state over the last five years.
The state Office of Employee Relations Anti-Discrimination Investigation Division investigates allegations of workplace discrimination within state agencies, and determines if policies were violated in the Equal Employment Opportunity Rights and Responsibilities state employees handbook.
"If a complaint is not determined to be within ADID’s authority to investigate, the individual making the complaint is informed of other options of where to seek redress," according to OER on Thursday.
When she took office two years ago, Gov. Hochul said changing the toxic work environment within the state would be a focus of her administration after workplace sexual harassment and abuse was the catalyst for her assuming the role as governor.
Hochul changed the name of the former Governor's Office of Employee Relations to the state Office of Employee relations, but PEF leaders said it did not build independence into the agency from the executive as intended, and hasn't helped.
"That change didn't do anything, it's just gotten worse," Spence said. "...I'm sorry, I have no faith in this. I love the governor. I support the governor, but on this issue, we're gonna have to agree to disagree. I expect better from her because she knows that she came into power because of a toxic work environment. Her own employees are not working to stop the work environment."
PEF members will lead a legislative push when session resumes in January to pass legislation to codify what bullying and a toxic work environment are in state law.
Others also floated increasing consequences for managers that perpetuate abuse.
State Sen. Robert Jackson worked for PEF for 23 years. The Manhattan Democrat traveled to Albany to march with the workers.
"Any time that the union's are complaining and marching? They're not marching for fun," he said. "This is real."
Jackson says he'll fight to pass legislation to improve the workplace culture next session and prevent people in higher positions from bullying their employees.
Senate Labor Committee Chair Jessica Ramos says improper wages, benefits and working conditions have led to the state's steep hiring gaps in the public sector, which impact public services New Yorkers rely on.
"A job in the public sector used to be something people aspired to, and we need to restore that reputation by making the public sector a dignified and respectful workplace," Ramos said in a statement.
Ramos sponsors the legislation to require training to reduce abusive workplace behavior, and says she looks forward to picking it back up with PEF and Sen. Jackson next session.
"Something's wrong, and we need to straighten it out — and that's what this is about," Jackson said.