When Beth Rocha decided to speak out about sexual harassment in her office at Seattle City Light, she didn’t know the #MeToo movement would go viral. A year later, Mayor Jenny Durkan has ordered a comprehensive review of the city’s harassment and discrimination policies.
When Beth Rocha decided to speak out about sexual harassment in her office at Seattle City Light, she didn’t know the #MeToo movement would go viral.
She didn’t know her effort would reshape her life and contribute to a re-examination of harassment and discrimination policies across city government. Rocha only knew she wanted to break her silence.
She and her co-workers had been leered at, had their shoulders rubbed, and been subjected to lewd remarks and unwanted propositions, she says, and they had little confidence in City Light — a regional electric utility with 2,000 employees and a billion-dollar budget — to address their concerns.
Confronting sexual harassment and abuseThe #MeToo movement has sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment and assault. From actors in Hollywood to security guards at the Seattle Public Library, more people are coming forward with painful and intimate stories of abuse, casting new light on behavior that for too long has been dealt with in whispers, secret settlements or not at all. So where do we go from here? The Seattle Times' occasional series explores that and other questions as we move forward in this changed landscape.
Rocha, 37, says her experiences included a male employee asking her, “What color panties are you wearing today?” and another trying to touch her inappropriately.
She helped write a petition, spoke to the Seattle Women’s Commission and contacted the City Council. Then she helped convene Seattle Silence Breakers — city employees and other people meeting to combat harassment and discrimination.
“I was fed up,” said Rocha, then an assistant energy-management analyst in City Light’s Customer Energy Solutions division. “People needed to know.”
A year later, #MeToo revelations dominate the news, and although Rocha’s allegations of sexual harassment were dismissed by City Light after investigations she describes as inadequate and unfair, Rocha’s activism appears to have stirred City Hall.
The Stranger reported on her allegations. Then Mayor Jenny Durkan cited workplace-environment concerns, among other issues, when she ushered City Light CEO Larry Weis out the door in December. By the end of the month, Department of Human Resources Director Susan Coskey also was gone.
The new mayor in January ordered a comprehensive review of the city’s harassment and discrimination policies. “Individuals with the willingness to come forward and share their experience help empower others,” Durkan spokeswoman Stephanie Formas said, noting that the mayor’s policy-review team would include a Silence Breakers representative.
Rocha has met with Councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant and Teresa Mosqueda, and she spoke this month to Mosqueda’s labor-rights committee, where Councilmember Debora Juarez skewered City Light officials for using workplace guidelines that date to 1994.
Still, Rocha doubts Seattle’s leaders will be able to quickly solve the city’s harassment and discrimination challenges. The work, she says, may prove particularly difficult at City Light,a revenue-generating department dominated by men.
City Light says its demographics are better than the industry average, with 44 percent of leadership roles and 38 percent of recent promotions going to women.
Still, disparities persist. Last year, only 30 percent of non-temporary City Light employees were women — a slight decrease from 2012.
Women who spoke to The Seattle Times about working at City Light, both in offices and in the trades, said most employees behave decently. The utility’s human-resources director, DaVonna Johnson, says City Light “is committed to a workplace culture where every employee is treated with respect.”
But harassment, discrimination and bullying concerns do arise, and when they do, the utility can struggle to deal with them, said the half-dozen women, some of whom requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation or confidentiality agreements in settlements with City Light.
“This is something we need to start talking about,” said Eugenia Morita, a City Light retiree who supervised Rocha. “It’s been going on a long time.”
• • •
Rocha’s journey from ordinary employee to activist began in late 2016, when City Light sent out an anonymous online survey.
She says she thought about how male employees had referred to her “birthday suit” on her birthday, flipped her ponytail, asked her about getting “on the pole sometime” when they walked past a strip club. A manager had greeted her with “lovely lady.”’
Rocha says she’d withstood it for years. “You either ignore it and they remain oblivious,” or risk being labeled a bitch or cut off contact, she wrote in the survey.
A couple of months later, another employee sent an email encouraging women in the office to object to men calling them names like baby and sweetheart. “When we don’t speak up when something bothers us, it’s permission to continue doing it,” the employee argued.
The email led Rocha to help put together the petition to express concern about “blatant sexism” in the division. It drew 42 signatures and asked for sexism training.
The petition drive was something new for Guadalupe Perez-Garcia, a union representative for City Light office workers for more than 10 years. The former Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 rep says she rarely heard about sexual harassment, speculating some women were afraid to speak up.
Gender, race, age and sexual-orientation discrimination complaints were more common, says Perez-Garcia, who left Local 17 last year.
One woman at City Light who asked for anonymity described years of dealing with inappropriate remarks at work, and being passed over for career opportunities.
“A lot of women are terrified to talk,” she said. “They’re worried they’ll be blacklisted by crew members and treated as troublemakers. When you file a complaint, you become the problem.”
Perez-Garcia sent the petition to City Light brass, while Rocha presented it to the Seattle Women’s Commission, along with anonymous vignettes from her office. She later contacted Sawant, who confronted Weis about the petition in July.
Initially, Perez-Garcia expected a robust response. The city’s labor-relations director met with the Local 17 rep about the requested training, and City Light took some steps.
A manager in Rocha’s office required employees to complete online sexual-harassment training, and the director of Customer Energy Solutions launched a “culture change initiative” meant partly to improve workplace morale.
Those steps weren’t what Rocha and Perez-Garcia had in mind. The online training was minimal, Rocha says. The utility didn’t hire a consultant for the culture-change initiative until August, and the initiative was too broadly defined, Perez-Garcia says.
City Light said the utility stopped looking into the petition last May because interviews with numerous signers resulted in no additional formal allegations.
Meanwhile, Rocha went to City Light with sexual-harassment complaints against three men and allegations against two managers — one male, one female — for mishandling the incidents.
• • •
Rocha said one man, after she had emailed him about an art project titled, “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” replied with a link to a book about race and feminism called, “You Can’t Touch My Hair,” with the message, “OK, can I touch your hair?”
She said a second man had asked her, “What color panties are you wearing today?” before an interview, made an obscene gesture at her, asked whether she was menstruating and shoulder-checked her in a hallway.
Rocha said a third man had tried to touch her inappropriately as she walked into a meeting and later made a joke about his wet pants being her fault.
Following investigations, City Light cited a manager for not immediately reporting Rocha’s “Can I touch your hair?” complaint and cited the second man for violating the utility’s workplace expectation of mutual respect, according to investigation reports.
All three men denied sexually harassing Rocha, interviews with other employees were inconclusive and her sexual-harassment allegations were rejected — with the investigator concluding the incidents likely didn’t happen or weren’t harassment under City Light’s personnel rules, according to HR reports.
The male manager wasn’t cited.
Rocha says the investigations ignored evidence and sought to discredit her.
For example, the investigator rejected the panties allegation partly because she mistakenly said her interview had been June 17, 2016, rather than June 22, 2016.
Rocha has since filed a claim for damages — the precursor to a lawsuit. Her story jibes with the anguish some other women said they’ve experienced with City Light HR.
The employee who talked about missed promotions says investigations into her complaints were slow, with an HR officer at one point blaming a heavy workload.
“It was textbook what shouldn’t happen to you,” she said. “The investigations are dragged out, uncomfortable and ineffective. They don’t resolve anything.”
Another woman who asked for anonymity said she went to HR after someone wrote “stinky rotten smell” with arrows pointing to her crotch on a photo posted on a bulletin board.
An investigation failed to determine who vandalized the photo last June, said her sexual-harassment complaint could not be “corroborated by a preponderance of the evidence” and resulted in no corrective action, according to an HR report.
She says the investigation was shallow despite taking months and should have reviewed surveillance-camera recordings. “I was devastated,” the employee said. “They crushed it under the rug.”
• • •
Perez-Garcia said allegations like Rocha’s usually lead to a he said/she said scenario, with City Light HR making choices to protect the utility.
“The investigations are done by someone internal who has a boss, and that boss hired the people being investigated,” she said. “There just isn’t a ton of interest in asking hard questions.”
Johnson disputed that, saying, “Our only concern … is that the investigation is thorough and complete, and the findings are supported by the evidence.”
For the past two years, City Light has regularly sent HR officers into the field “to proactively engage employees” and hear their concerns, Johnson said. Since 2012, the utility has maintained a 24-hour hotline where employees can make anonymous complaints.
Some numbers: City Light has spawned 90 discrimination complaints since 2008 — 26 for gender discrimination, and 22 harassment complaints — nine for sexual harassment, according to the utility.
“City Light is not a worker-friendly place, especially if you’re female or gay,” said a recently retired longtime employee who served in both labor and management roles.
Asked by council members about City Light’s HR investigations, Johnson said about 40 percent result in no findings. Two sexual-harassment findings in the past decade both led to terminations, spokesman Scott Thomsen said.
Rocha is the first City Light employee in at least five years to file a claim for damages alleging sexual harassment, Thomsen added.
• • •
Rocha says her quest went nowhere for months, despite meetings with the officers from the central Department of Human Resources and Office of Civil Rights. Then the #MeToo movement, Durkan’s election and media coverage boosted the conversation.
“We’d been waiting for #MeToo to hit Seattle.gov,” said Megan Cornish, a longtime member of the socialist feminist group Seattle Radical Women and one of the first women to enroll in City Light’s line-worker apprenticeship program in 1974.
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Cornish helped organize the Silence Breakers, who rallied outside City Hall on Valentine’s Day. Their demands include an independent Office of Civil Rights empowered to investigate complaints without political interference.
City Light officials are now paying attention. Interim CEO Jim Baggs released a video statement last month urging employees to report harassment, and the utility has hired an outside investigator to take another look inside Customer Energy Solutions.
“Having a mayor who wants this change to happen makes a difference,” said Women’s Commission co-chair Morgan Beach. “Sexual harassment and predation in the workplace happen to the vast majority of women.”
Rocha says such signals are heartening but she says her year-plus battle has exacted a toll. She’s leaving Seattle for a job elsewhere, saying she needs to heal.
“It’s almost like we hit the fast forward button in the ’60s and then hit pause because we thought everything was cool,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to do.”