Seattle agreed to pay $450,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a former City Light employee who spoke out against sexual harassment in her office and who helped create a group called the Seattle Silence Breakers to push for reforms.
The city does not admit liability in the settlement with Beth Rocha but agreed to take down a City Light blog post from last year about an investigation into concerns raised by employees in the division where Rocha worked.
That investigation found violations of workplace-respect expectations but insufficient evidence to back up allegations of blatant sexism in the Customer Solutions Division, and it was criticized by Rocha and the Silence Breakers.
The city also agreed in the July 22 settlement with Rocha to a joint statement acknowledging her work with the Silence Breakers, a group that includes city employees and activists.
“The City recognizes Ms. Rocha’s courage in speaking up about her experiences and commends her for the significant contributions that she has made to the Seattle Silence Breakers,” the statement says.
“The Silence Breakers were instrumental in the City’s recent efforts to support employees who are experiencing issues in the workplace, including the recent formation of the Office of the Employee Ombud.”
Rocha and the city agreed in the settlement to say nothing about the case other than the joint statement. Rocha declined to comment this week, as did Dan Nolte, a spokesman for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office.
Denise Krownbell, a City Light senior environmental analyst and Silence Breakers co-chair, described the settlement as good news.
“It means that they messed up and realize they have things to change,” said Krownbell, a PROTEC17 union shop steward.
City Light hired an employment attorney in 2017 to carry out an investigation after a number of employees in Rocha’s division signed a petition expressing concerns about “blatant sexism experienced by many people” and requesting training.
Rocha helped write the petition and collect signatures. The management analyst said she and co-workers had been leered at, had their shoulders rubbed and been subjected to lewd remarks and unwanted propositions.
She separately made personal allegations about sexual harassment. Rocha said her experiences included a male employee asking, “What color panties are you wearing today?” She said another man tried to touch her inappropriately and joked about his wet pants being her fault.
She left City Light but sued Seattle, claiming gender discrimination based on sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. Her lawsuit said male employees had referred to her “birthday suit” on her birthday, asked her about getting “on the pole sometime” and greeted her by calling her “lovely lady.”
In the meantime, her activism and work by the Silence Breakers stirred things up at City Hall. Mayor Jenny Durkan cited workplace-environment concerns, among other issues, when she accepted the resignation of then-City Light CEO Larry Weis, and the utility released a video statement urging its employees to report sexual harassment.
Durkan created an interdepartmental team to review Seattle’s workplace-harassment and discrimination policies, leading to 30 recommendations, including the establishment of the Office of the Employee Ombud. Launched this year, the office is supposed to support city employees dealing with workplace issues and to watchdog City Hall’s handling of workplace misconduct and harassment.
In addition, the mayor created a new unit inside the Seattle Department of Human Resources to investigate city-employee complaints about harassment and discrimination in departments rather than continuing to allow departments to carry out their own investigations. Durkan also brought on Debra Smith as City Light CEO.
“The city is committed to continuing to work with the Silence Breakers on these important issues,” says the joint statement in Rocha’s settlement. “Ms. Rocha is proud of her work to bring about these constructive changes.”
The Silence Breakers are pleased that the Office of the Employee Ombud and new investigative unit have been created, Krownbell said. Smith has “said a lot of good things,” though the reform group is still “waiting to see more changes on the ground,” Krownbell added.
“This utility and city are big boats to move in a new direction,” she said. “It’ll take time.”
The city has paid out millions of dollars since 2009 to settlement cases involving city employee allegations of discrimination, including sexual harassment.
City Light has been the leading source of such cases, with the utility paying $375,000 to three women who said they had been mistreated due to age, gender, race or sexual orientation and had been retaliated against after complaining.
Also in 2017, Seattle agreed to pay $220,000 to two former library security guards who said a manager had kissed them both and a co-worker had spanked one of them.
Staff reporter Sydney Brownstone contributed to this report.