Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Capitol Hill’

This is the elaborate system Congress created to protect sexual predators on Capitol Hill

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

On Tuesday, BuzzFeed reported that numerous woman on the staff of Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) say the congressman repeatedly sexually harassed them. Conyers’ conduct allegedly included “requests for sexual favors…caressing their hands sexually, and rubbing their legs and backs in public.” In at least one case, a woman who rebuffed Conyers’ advances says she was fired.

Yet until last night, Conyers’ behavior was secret. Why? There is no better place to be a sexual predator than the U.S. Congress.

Congress has created an elaborate system that protects sexual predators on Capitol Hill, including members of Congress and their staff. In the private sector and elsewhere in the government, victims of sexual harassment have the option of immediately filing a lawsuit and getting their grievances heard in court. But Congress has created a much different set of rules for victims who work on Capitol Hill.

The 180-day statute of limitations to request “counseling”

In order to pursue accountability for a sitting member of Congress for an alleged incident of sexual harassment or assault, a victim must file a written notice with the Office of Compliance within 180 days of the incident. If they don’t act within 180 days, they have no ability to pursue their claims. As reporting on Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and others reveals, it can take years for victims to feel comfortable coming forward.

Furthermore, the form to file such a complaint is password protected; a victim must call the Office of Compliance to get the password to initiate the process.

The 30-day “counseling” period

After filing the complaint, the person alleging harassment or assault must participate in a 30-day counseling period. Yes, in Congress, the victims of sexual harassment must submit to counseling, as if there is something wrong with them. During this period, no one else — including the alleged harasser — is even notified the complaint has been filed.

The Office of Compliance puts a sunny face on this process, saying it “provides the employee with an opportunity to assess his/her case before deciding whether to pursue the claim(s) beyond counseling.” In other words, the process starts with a 30-day waiting period in which the victim is given the “opportunity” to consider dropping the entire matter.

The 15-day statute of limitations to request mediation

After going through the counseling process, the alleged victim has just 15 days to file a request for mediation. If they fail to do so, the claim is extinguished. The form to request mediation is also password protected and must be obtained from the Office of Compliance.

The 30-day mediation period

After the counseling process, the alleged victim is still prohibited from filing a case in court. Rather, they must enter mandatory, confidential mediation which lasts at least another 30 days. The mediation period involves “the employing office, employee, and [Office of Compliance] mediator.” The purpose of the mediation, according to the Office of Compliance, is to “resolve the dispute.”

The individual alleging harassment or assault is also required to keep this mediation secret. “All mediation shall be strictly confidential, and the Executive Director shall notify each person participating in the mediation of the confidentiality requirement and of the sanctions applicable to any person who violates the confidentiality requirement,” according to the poorly named Congressional Accountability Act, which governs the process. The alleged perpetrator may not even be involved in this process, even if the claim is settled. John Conyers, whose case was settled through mediation, claimed he was unaware of any allegations against him — although sources tell BuzzFeed he did know.

There are also indications of misconduct within the Office of Compliance. Conyers’ settlement was confidential but documents were leaked by someone to Mike Cernovich, a right-wing conspiracy theorist and professional misogynist, who shared the documents with BuzzFeed.

The taxpayer-funded sexual harassment settlement

As part of the mediation process, the parties can reach a settlement to resolve the dispute. But this settlement is not paid by the person who actually conducted the sexual harassment. Rather, the settlement is paid by you, the taxpayer. “[O]nly funds which are appropriated to an account of the Office in the Treasury of the United States for the payment of awards and settlements may be used for the payment of awards and settlements under this chapter,” the Congressional Accountability Actstates. This is why Conyers did not have to pay a penny of his own money to settle claims against his alleged victims.

According to the Washington Post, the Office of Compliance has paid more than $17 million over the past two decades to settle complaints regarding violations of workplace rules, including but not limited to sexual harassment cases. But BuzzFeed’s reporting indicates this doesn’t get at the scope of the problem. At least one settlement with a woman who alleged Conyers harassed her was paid from Conyers’ office budget, not from the Office of Compliance.

The 30-day waiting period and 60-day statute of limitations for filing a complaint

After making it through counseling and mediation, the victim must wait 30 days before doing anything. It’s unclear what this waiting period is for, other than to pressure the victim to accept a settlement offer or drop the claim. The victim then has just 60 days to either file an administrative complaint with the Office of Compliance or file a case in federal district court. The form to file an administrative complaint is also password protected. If the victim does not take any action within 90 days of the end of mediation, the claim is extinguished.

The secret administrative hearing

The administrative proceeding, unlike a federal court case, is also confidential and presents another opportunity for a perpetrator to keep the allegations secret. The hearings are closed to the public. (The hearing officer is empowered to dismiss any claim without a hearing if he or she judges the claim to be “frivolous.”) The responding party is not the individual that engaged in sexual harassment, but the office that employed that person. A record of the proceedings are only made public if the victim is successful.

If the victim disagrees with the decision, he or she must appeal first to the board of the Office of Compliance. After the Office of Compliance issue their decision, the victim may appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. That means there will be no independent evaluation of the evidence, rather the appeals court simply reviews for arbitrary or capricious application of the law, a very high legal standard.

If the victim wins in the administrative hearing, the payment is made from taxpayer money. They are not entitled to receive civil penalties or punitive damages under the law. This keeps both the awards and the settlements fairly low. Over 20 years, Congress has paid $17.1 million to 264 victims, a figure that includes sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination — an average award of about $65,000.

A federal case against a congressional office, not the person engaging in sexual harassment

After all this, a victim still cannot sue a member of Congress or other staff member who engaged in sexual harassment. Rather, if a victim choses to forgo the administrative hearing, he or she can file a federal case against the office where the sexual harassment allegedly occurred. In this case, victims are still not entitled to civil penalties or punitive damages. This makes the choice to file a suit, in most cases, prohibitively expensive since even a successful case will not bring in a large award.

Whatever money is awarded still is not paid by the sexual harasser but by taxpayers.

With more recent scrutiny on the systems in place to hold accountable powerful men accused of assault and harassment, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) recently introduced legislation to reform this process. Their bill would make counseling and mediation optional. It would also require hearings to be completed within 180 days after the complaint is filed. Complaints under the new legislation could also be filed anonymously. Members of Congress who personally engage in sexual harassment would be required to pay their own settlements and awards, rather than using taxpayer funds for this purpose.

The proposed bill — called the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act, or ME TOO Congress — still requires an administrative complaint or civil action to be filed 180 days after the alleged incident.

Gillibrand and Speier’s bill has attracted three co-sponsors in the Senate and five in the House. All of Gillibrand’s co-sponsors are Democratic women. Speier’s co-sponsors include three Republican men.

This article was published at ThinkProgress on November 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Judd Legum is the founder and editor in chief of ThinkProgress

House of Representatives has a sexual harassment policy — but it’s designed to protect the harasser

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

House lawmakers met on Capitol Hill Tuesday to review the chamber’s sexual harassment policies. This review process comes on the heels of sweeping allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment among some of the nation’s most powerful institutions and industries — including the U.S. Congress.

In her opening statement, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) told the story of a young female staffer who was subject to sexual harassment from a sitting Congressman.

“This member asked a staffer to bring them over some materials to their residence. And a young staffer — it was a young woman — went there and was greeted with a member in a towel. It was a male, who then invited her in. At that point, he decided to expose himself,” Comstock said. “She left, and then she quit her job.”

Over 1,500 former Hill staffers have signed a letter calling for a formal review of the “inadequate” congressional sexual harassment policies in the wake of such incidents.

Lawmakers like Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) have previously shared their own stories of sexual harassment from their years working as aides on the Hill.

Speier — who shared a story on Twitter back in October about a congressional chief of staff who had once “stuck his tongue down her throat” — testified before the panel on Tuesday and disclosed there are at least two sitting members of Congress, one Democrat and one Republican, who have engaged in sexual harassment. She stated some victims have admitted to having their “private parts grabbed on the House floor” by members. Speier didn’t disclose the names of the members and said these cases have not yet been reviewed.

The reason for that is likely that the process for reporting sexual harassment in the House is so extensive and geared towards protecting the harasser.

As Speier noted in the hearing, successful claims against a House employee require the victim to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Any settlements made to the victim are taxpayer-funded and never disclosed, the identity of the accused also remains anonymous. Additionally, interns and fellows do not have access to this process, leaving them with nowhere to turn should they be sexually harassed by a member of Congress.

Currently, there is no required sexual harassment training in the House of Representatives, but rather, individual offices may have their staff attend training sessions offered by the Office of Compliance. The head of that department said during testimony on Tuesday that they have made multiple recommendations to Congress to mandate sexual harassment training for all employees since 2010.

Just last week, the Senate passed a resolution that required mandatory sexual harassment training for all members, including staffers, interns, and the lawmakers themselves.

Following the Committee on House Administration hearing on Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) released a statement calling for mandatory sexual harassment training in the chamber.

“Today’s hearing was another important step in our efforts to combat sexual harassment and ensure a safe workplace. I want to especially thank my colleagues who shared their stories. Going forward, the House will adopt a policy of mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all Members and staff. Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution. As we work with the Administration, Ethics, and Rules committees to implement mandatory training, we will continue our review to make sure the right policies and resources are in place to prevent and report harassment.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Rebekah Entralgo is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Previously she was a news assistant and social media coordinator at NPR, where she covered presidential conflicts of interest and ethics coverage. Before moving to Washington, she was an intern reporter at NPR member stations WLRN in Miami and WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida. She holds a B.A in Editing, Writing, and Media with a minor in political science from Florida State University

Congress Hears Demands for Health Care Reform in Town Hall Meetings

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Members of Congress met in town hall sessions Thursday with constituents who were on Capitol Hill to rally and demand health care reform. Read dispatches from some of the meetings.

—————–

Ohio Weighs In

After the rally, more than 250 activists from Ohio met at the Columbus Club at Union Station to plan for an afternoon of lobbying and hear from members of Congress about health care reform.

“Nothing is more important to me than ensuring that President Obama passes health care reform.”

The session was introduced by Tim Burga of the Ohio AFL-CIO, who decried the “free market run amok” in the current health care system and affirmed that we must have a serious public health insurance option.

He introduced Hattie Wilkins, who made one of the most moving speeches of the event.

Her situation illustrates the deep problems working families have with the way the current system operates. Hattie is a member of the United Steelworkers (USW) union who worked for 35 years for Brentwood Originals, a pillow factory in Youngstown, Ohio. The USW struck Brentwood Originals in 2008, and more than three-quarters of the workforce has been laid off. She was fired because of her strong support for the union, Hattie said. She has been collecting $887 a month in unemployment since then. She has COBRA coverage, and now pays $275 per month—31 percent of earnings from unemployment—for her health insurance. She pays another $450 per month for her mortgage payment, leaving her only $162 each month for food, utilities, transportation and all her other expenses. Now her unemployment payments are ending and she doesn’t know what she is going to do.

At 58 years of age, Hattie is searching for another job at places like McDonald’s but has to compete with applicants much younger than she is. She gave us her cell phone number, though she wasn’t sure how much longer she would have it. Hattie came to Washington, D.C., to participate in the rally and make sure her elected representatives heard her voice on this critical issue.

Sen. Arlen Specter says health care is a right.

The Latest on Pennsylvania Town Hall

Sen. Specter has arrived, and compliments the crowd on its tenacity and commitment. Specter says he agrees that health care is a right and believes health care legislation will pass and will include a public option component. Of course, in a room full of union members, the Employee Free Choice Act came up. Specter says he is working hard to find an answer for early union certification and gaining first contracts.

Pennsylvania Update

The folks at Capitol City Brewing Co. are waiting for Sen. Arlen Specter to arrive. We hear reports he’s been at the White House.

From the North Carolina Meeting

Sen. Kay Hagan just arrived. She says the fight for health care reform is the “most important thing going on in our country.” Everyone in America must have health care coverage, she says, and patients with pre-existing conditions should be able to get health insurance.

About a public health insurance option plan, Hagan says some critics are getting caught up in nuance about language used in the debate. “I don’t care what you call it as long as it provides affordability accessibility and covers pre-existing conditions,” she says. We’d heard earlier reports that her staff told union leaders Hagan believes if health care reform passes, it will include a public option. The senator herself did not specifically say she supports the public option.

I think the key is if you have health insurance, you keep it. We don’t want to dismantle what exists.

More Pennsylvania Town Hall

Rep. Sestak arrived and talked about his daughter’s brain tumor and his health care plan to help keep her alive. Everybody deserves health care for themselves and their families, as well, he said. Sestak says his support for health care reform is “payback” to the country that provided health care for him and his family when he was in the Navy.

Everybody must be covered under health care reform, according to Sestak, and a public health insurance plan must be an option.

Nothing is more important to me than ensuring that President Obama passes health care reform.

Pennsylvania Town Hall

Hundreds of union members from Pennsylvania have packed a hall just a block from the U.S. Capitol to hear from their elected officials on the status of real health care reform. As they wait for Sen. Arlen Specter (D) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D) to appear, the chanting is in full force:

Congress, This is our demand. The option of a public plan.

What do we want? HEALTH CARE!

When do we want it? NOW!

Congress, This is our demand, the option of a public plan!

We are waiting for Specter and Sestak so we can spring that on them.

Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D) did not attend. A staff member is delivering her talking points.

Health care reform that guarantees quality, affordable health care reform must be passed.

We must ensure that patients’ choices are protected.

Maryland Town Hall

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Rep. John Sarbanes and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer speak to hundreds of Maryland workers and all support public option.

Rep. Blumenauer at Town Hall on Small Business

At a town hall focused on small business issues this morning at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) advocated a public insurance option plan, guaranteed coverage and a “pay or play” system that would require businesses to provide health care coverage for their employees or pay into a fund. These reforms would level the playing field and reduce cost burdens on small businesses, he said.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now. Re-printed with permission by the author.


Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog