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For Some Women, Working for Cuomo Is the ‘Worst Place to Be’

Dozens of current and former employees of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive chamber described the office as chaotic, unprofessional and toxic, especially for young women.

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On Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said in a teleconference that he would not resign amid sexual harassment allegations and criticism of his administration’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic.CreditCredit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times
  • Published March 12, 2021Updated March 13, 2021

In the office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, there are usually two annual holiday parties: one, near the New York State Capitol, for all executive employees, and another, at the Governor’s Mansion.

The smaller soiree is attended mostly by senior administration officials and agency heads, but some aides — often young women — also receive invitations.

The end-of-year guessing game on who might land invitations has long fueled resentment and speculation, especially among women, who have sometimes wondered if younger aides get invited only if they accede to an office culture still rooted in the “Mad Men” era — including an expectation that they wear high heels to work.

Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, is now being investigated by outside lawyers overseen by the state attorney general, and is the subject of an impeachment inquiry after a series of accusations of inappropriate conduct, from unwanted sexual advances to unsolicited kisses and, this week, groping.

But as investigators examine those specific allegations, a generation of public servants who have worked under Mr. Cuomo have voiced concerns about the cultural issues that have permeated the state’s most powerful workplace on a daily basis.

In interviews over the past week, more than 35 people who have worked in Mr. Cuomo’s executive chamber described the office as deeply chaotic, unprofessional and toxic, especially for young women.

It is a workplace, the current and former employees said, where tasks are assigned not based on job titles, but on who is liked by Mr. Cuomo and his top aides.

Those interviewed described an environment where the senior executive staff regularly deride junior workers, test their dedication to the governor and make them compete to earn his affection and avoid his wrath.

The workers, for the most part, said they did not personally witness overt sexual harassment. But many said they believed that Mr. Cuomo and other officials seemed to focus on how employees looked and how they dressed. Twelve young women said they felt pressured to wear makeup, dresses and heels, because, it was rumored, that was what the governor liked.

One high-ranking current official and two former aides said they believed they had been denied opportunities because they did not dress in the preferred manner.

The workplace culture described by the employees is not uncommon in Albany, a state capital with a long history of sexual misconduct scandals and a reputation for after-hours mingling among lobbyists, elected officials and their aides at bars and fund-raisers. But the issues are notable for a governor who has cast himself as a champion for workers and women.

Mr. Cuomo’s office denied many of the issues raised by the employees and said New Yorkers had elected Mr. Cuomo multiple times because “they know he works day and night for them.”

“There is no secret these are tough jobs, and the work is demanding,” Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser, said in a statement. “But we have a top-tier team with many employees who have been here for years and many others who have left and returned because they know the work we do matters, a fact that was underscored throughout Covid.”

Almost all the current and former employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from Mr. Cuomo, who is known for threatening critics and whose office has in recent weeks released personnel information about accusers.

“People are frankly still recovering from their experience working there, and they’re terrified of speaking out,” said State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a former aide and a fierce critic.

State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who worked for Mr. Cuomo in 2017, described the executive chamber as the “worst place” for women focused on work.
Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

Ms. Biaggi worked in the executive chamber for seven months in 2017. She said she could not stand the culture, a refrain repeated by several other women who lasted less than a year. “If you are a woman who wants to focus on work, it is the worst place to be,” Ms. Biaggi said.

Some current and former aides called their time at the office a rewarding experience, praising the governor and criticizing how he had been portrayed by the news media.

Others who viewed the workplace culture as problematic said they felt conflicted about working for Mr. Cuomo. They said they still felt a deep pride in the work, and they wondered if the treatment they endured was the price that had to be paid for effective public service.

Still, many others said it was not worth it.

Mr. Cuomo and his top aides regularly set up employees to compete against one other, according to more than two dozen current and former staff members. Some recounted being assigned a task and later discovering a colleague had been sent to the same job.

Several recalled having to cut short vacations or miss their children’s birthday parties for seemingly minor tasks such as transcribing television interviews with local politicians in other states whom Mr. Cuomo feared could someday become political rivals.

They also said Mr. Cuomo and staff members, including his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, would scream and curse at subordinates over small stumbles, like misspelling names. Some said they cried at the office almost every week.

Aides who are favored by Mr. Cuomo sit at larger desks, get to travel with him and are invited to pool parties, Super Bowl parties and other events, employees said.

The division is evident in the governor’s office in the State Capitol, four former aides said. There the employees who are favored — and comply with the dress code — sit on one side of the office, in Mr. Cuomo’s line of sight. Others sit on the other side.

Mr. Azzopardi said that work flow decisions were based on “what makes sense organizationally,” noting that some offices were traditionally reserved for specific appointees.

Mr. Azzopardi said workers were not hired based on their appearance, and that there was “not now nor has there ever been an expectation to wear certain clothing or high heels.”

The current and former employees said that women — and particularly young women — encountered a variety of additional challenges in the office, starting with the hiring process, which several aides said favored women who are tall, thin and blonde.

Credit…Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock

Peter Yacobellis, who served from 2011 to 2014 as the governor’s deputy director of administrative services and helped oversee hiring in the Manhattan office, said he often heard inappropriate jokes about the type of women the governor liked to hire.

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Mr. Yacobellis said that during his tenure, there was no significant training on sexual harassment. He said that void helped foster an environment where senior officials did not know what was appropriate, and junior aides did not know how to report issues.

After working at the governor’s office, Mr. Yacobellis helped lead the training team in human resources at American Express. He said he was surprised at the stark differences, and realized how crucial it was for public officials to provide more sexual harassment training in their offices.

“Training could have been the antidote to curing what was clearly a toxic environment for many women in the governor’s office,” he said.

The office harassment was not always obvious. Several former employees said there were frequent comments about how aides looked and whom they dated, including from Mr. Cuomo.

One former aide said she once overheard Mr. Cuomo learn another aide was pregnant and then joyfully bellow, “I’m not the father!”

Five current and former employees said Mr. Cuomo called them “darling” or “sweetheart.” Some described it as charming, but others said it made them feel uncomfortable.

On Valentine’s Day, aides said, Mr. Cuomo sometimes sends roses to aides whom he likes.

Mr. Cuomo has apologized for some of his behavior around employees, saying he never intended to make anybody feel uncomfortable.

Ana Liss, who worked in the office as a policy adviser from 2013 to 2015, said she arrived excited to tackle economic development issues but quickly came to believe Mr. Cuomo valued her for her looks, rather than her work. Ms. Liss is one of several former aides who have publicly accused the governor of inappropriate behavior.

The governor, she said, began paying extra attention to her and would often stop at her desk to talk, once kissing her hand. Others took note: At least three colleagues, including a top aide at the time, joked about how the governor found her attractive, she said.

“They said, ‘Oh, he likes you,’” she said. “I took that as a badge of honor, but then I thought that was kind of gross. I thought that I was going there to advance my career as a thought worker. I didn’t want to play that weird game.”

Ms. Liss added, “Most women can tell when a man is looking at them and for what reason.”

Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

Several women who worked for Mr. Cuomo defended him. Three former aides who worked closely with him, including in one-on-one settings, said he never made them feel uncomfortable.

Susan Del Percio, a special adviser from 2014 to 2015, said she never observed sexual harassment, though she saw “an intense environment, a demanding environment, a harsh environment.”

Still, many women who did not experience harassment said they believed the women who have come forward in recent weeks. Several said the allegations did not surprise them.

The current and former aides also said they had seen other examples of insensitivity toward women, like Mr. Cuomo’s aides asking pregnant women to sleep at the office during budget negotiations and a failure to provide enough rooms for breastfeeding mothers.

A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo said all state government employees worked long hours during budget negotiations, and “accommodations are readily made for anyone who requires them, whether for pregnancy or any other medical reason.” He also said there were designated pumping areas for new mothers.

Three former employees — including Ms. Liss — said they were warned by colleagues that if they wanted to be among the favored aides who received special attention, they had to dress how Mr. Cuomo liked. Nine others said that was implicitly understood.

One young former aide who complied with that dress code said she was surprised to often receive high-level assignments. She said that on occasion, she was told she had gotten a task because she was attractive.

Ms. Liss said the culture made her feel isolated and intimidated.

“If you work in the belly of the beast, it’s a very scary place to be, particularly if you’re young, female, naïve, and without a lot of connections,” she said. “I have a lot of regrets about not calling it out because I know there are so many other women who had it worse than me.”

Emma G. Fitzsimmons, J. David Goodman and Jesse McKinley contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.