Roughly 18 months after the #MeToo movement sparked a frank discussion about workplace harassment, at the Washington Legislature, lawmakers and officials are struggling to create or staff independent offices to handle workplace complaints.
OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers this year have approved a new code of conduct and advanced other bills intended to prevent and punish workplace harassment at the Capitol.
The measures join steps already taken by the Senate and House to boost anti-harassment training and improve the Legislature’s broader workplace culture.
But roughly 18 months after the #MeToo movement sparked a frank discussion in Olympia about workplace harassment and power dynamics, lawmakers and officials still haven’t created or staffed independent offices to receive and review workplace complaints.
That has left both legislative chambers contracting with outside firms to review and potentially investigate harassment complaints, which legislative officials consider a stopgap.
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The concept of a neutral office emerged almost immediately in the fall of 2017, as women stepped forward to tell stories of harassment in Olympia. Especially during the legislative session, powerful elected officials, lobbyists and legislative staffers — many of them young — all mix in a high-pressure environment that often involves long hours.
Those accounts and more recent complaints have illustrated the Legislature’s out-of-date and politically tinged protocols for reviewing allegations. More than 200 women signed a letter saying they had “no safe, neutral place to report our experiences.”
Although lawmakers have made progress on the code of conduct and other policies, said former Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle, “there’s a lot of work that is left undone.”
Farrell, who left the Legislature in 2017, has spoken out about a 2015 incident in which a lobbyist had patted her behind.
“There still continues to be need for an independent investigator,” Farrell said, adding later: “I do think that the community on the outside continues to need to advocate and hold the Legislature accountable.”
The question of how complaints should be received and investigated has been on display several times in the past year. Four lawmakers have lost elections or resigned in the past year after facing allegations of sexual misconduct.
One of those situations involved a recent Senate investigation of a sexual-harassment complaint originally made in 2010 against Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. Ranker stepped down in January.
In another case, the Senate went back and forth on whether to investigate an allegation of rape made against Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn. A Senate committee made up of Republicans and Democrats unanimously approved an investigation to review that matter — but reversed course after Fain lost his November election.
Both chambers have been working toward setting up offices to handle complaints.
A Senate committee last summer authorized an internal human-resources position to handle complaints and investigations. Senate officials had hoped to have that job filled by early January, the start of this year’s legislative session.
Potential hires, however, have fallen through. The chamber is now seeking new candidates, according to Secretary of the Senate Brad Hendrickson.
In the House, an internal work group in December recommended legislation to create an office independent from the Legislature to receive and review complaints. The recommendations by the work group — which included House lawmakers, legislative staffers and lobbyists — called for that office to be established by July 2019.
That agency would cover both chambers, according to House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean, and have two functions. It would receive and potentially investigate complaints, and also would help people address workplace issues in a less formal manner, like through consultation or mediation.
But lawmakers are now more than halfway through the 105-day regularly scheduled legislative session — and aren’t working on legislation to establish that office.
Dean said there are questions around how much workload an independent office would handle, making it difficult to know what is needed in terms of staffing and budget.
The current House contracts to handle harassment issues — one to review complaints and another to provide workplace consultation — should give lawmakers better data about that, Dean said.
Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, said she worried about introducing a bill without the Senate having gone through the same extensive internal discussions as the House.
“The risk of dropping legislation and not coming to agreement, we thought would be challenging,” said Macri, a member of the internal House work group. “It would send a mixed or concerning message to staff here.”
Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, said lawmakers likely would have the information they need to create the office in the 2020 legislative session.
In the meantime, “maybe these contracts are going to provide that safe place” for people making workplace complaints, said Mosbrucker, another member of the internal work group.
Not everyone is on board with the idea of waiting that long. Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said the House wouldn’t need a bill to create a separate internal office to handle complaints, like the new Senate office.
“I don’t see why it needs a bill to happen … I see no reason to wait,” Jinkins wrote in a text message.
Dean, in an email, wrote that the House work group “felt strongly that an independent outside entity should be established” and “did not want a House employee to take on this role.”
Macri and Mosbrucker say Olympia’s workplace culture has improved amid the extensive discussion about harassment. And they say the new code of conduct approved by the House and Senate in January has raised visibility and prompted discussions.
“If you take the elevator here, you’ll see these signs that say, code of conduct, respectful workplace and there’s also a website,” Mosbrucker said.
That shows “we were listening, we did hear them when they told their heartbreaking stories,” she added. “And we are taking action as fast and as swiftly as possible.”
Lawmakers did take two key votes last week to strengthen anti-harassment policies at the Capitol campus.
The House unanimously approved House Bill 2018, which makes harassment or discrimination by lawmakers or legislative employees on state property or official state business a violation of the Ethics in Public Service Act.
That would allow the state Legislative Ethics Board — which is made up partly of sitting lawmakers — to more easily review harassment complaints.
The question of the Legislative Ethics Board’s purview on harassment issues was on display earlier this year.
While the board fined former Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, over allegations related to workplace harassment, it dismissed one complaint, saying current law was too vague to draw a conclusion.
“The ethics board now has new tools to be able to answer to any type of sexual harassment complaint,” said. Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, and sponsor of the bill. Morgan in November won election to Sawyer’s seat, after he lost in the August primary.
The Senate last week approved Senate Bill 5861, which directs the state Public Disclosure Commission to design a training program to inform registered lobbyists about the Legislature’s code of conduct.
That bill also requires a lobbyist’s clients to be notified if the Senate or House has made a credible finding of harassment against that lobbyist, according to the bill sponsor, Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond.
Farrell said lawmakers should consider drafting similar legislation, but geared toward election candidates and campaign staffers, to make sure they have also gotten anti-harassment training.
“So that we’re setting a really high bar and an expectation,” she said.
Other bills this year related to workplace harassment have stalled. Those include a Democratic proposal to extend collective bargaining to permanent workers at the Legislature, and a GOP bill that would require annual reporting on the number of harassment complaints at the Legislature and other state agencies.