State lawmakers passed several bills related to workplace sexual harassment this year. But their efforts to improve their own policies at the Capitol are proceeding lethargically, even after problems have come to light.
Amid cascading reports of sexual harassment in workplaces nationwide, state legislators this year approved several bills targeting office sexual misconduct and updating the state’s Equal Pay Act.
These measures, which include a ban on employment contracts that block workers from disclosing sexual harassment or assault, are modest steps forward that Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law Wednesday.
Yet it is hard to heap effusive praise on these efforts when the Legislature’s work to update its own policies on sexual harassment continues to drag on.
Five months ago, more than 170 women who work at the Capitol signed a letter calling for change. The letter described a culture that “silently supports and perpetuates harassment.”
Several women also stepped forward last fall to accuse former Democratic state Rep. Brendan Williams of sexual harassment and assault, while Democratic leaders admitted for the first time that they forced out former Rep. Jim Jacks, D-Vancouver, over his inappropriate behavior toward a female staffer. Both men left the House in 2011.
More recently, state Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, stepped down from a House leadership post as complaints emerged about his behavior toward a legislative staffer as well as at Central Washington University, where he is a professor. Also, House Democratic leaders confirmed last month they were looking into an allegation that Rep. David Sawyer, D-Parkland, behaved inappropriately toward a woman.
But even with the harsh spotlight of the #MeToo movement shining squarely on the Democratic-controlled Legislature, lawmakers failed to create a joint House and Senate task force this year to work on sexual-harassment issues.
Instead, elected leaders so far have left it to staff members in the House and Senate to develop recommendations to improve each chamber’s respectful workplace policy, the rules that govern all workplace behavior, not just sexual misconduct. It will be months before those recommendations might blossom into actual policy changes.
While the House is convening a work group specifically on preventing sexual harassment, the Senate has not announced plans to do so. The House group — composed of lawmakers, staff members and lobbyists — has yet to hold its first meeting.
State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, called the slow progress “frustrating.”
“I think it’s fair to say it’s not rocket science,” she said. “ … I don’t know why this wasn’t as urgent as several other things we did.”
Certain allegations have highlighted problems with the Legislature’s often unofficial process for handling complaints, a concern also raised in the letter.
For instance, although House leaders disciplined Rep. Jim Dunn, R-Vancouver, in 2007 for an inappropriate comment toward a staffer, two House officials at that time said they didn’t know he was previously accused of mistreating a staffer in 1999, a complaint that was handled informally.
This poor record keeping — along with the Legislature’s practice of hiding complaints and investigations from public view — can allow unacceptable behavior to persist for years with little accountability.
Meanwhile, employees and lobbyists have expressed concern that there isn’t a neutral party outside of the legislative leadership structure to field complaints.
In October, the National Conference of State Legislatures compiled model recommendations for a strong sexual harassment policy. Washington’s Legislature could start there.
Lawmakers moved swiftly this year to pass legislation they say will help create safer workplaces statewide. They should not drag their feet when it comes to protecting the female legislators, staff and lobbyists who come to work at the Capitol every day.
They must turn their attention to addressing the problems still glaring in Olympia.