by Tom Hicks, Democratic candidate for Congress in VA-01
Recent sexual harassment claims against members of Congress have again revealed the failure of this body to set a proper standard for workplace conduct. Congress is sadly behind most of the corporate world in establishing effective workplace conduct policies. Lawmakers need to step up now and put in place comprehensive, effective, and fair programs that prevent and deal with workplace sexual harassment. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the law that addresses the fundamental elements of discrimination. Title VII of this act bars discrimination in all workplace human resource activities and specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and thus falls under Title VII. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature in the working environment.
The current sexual harassment policies in Congress do not establish a victim-friendly environment and are so flawed that they need to be scrapped in their entirety and replaced. These flawed policies include requirements that victims to go through a month of mandatory mediation and counseling with an official that represents the offending office before they can file a complaint. During the mediation process, the victim must maintain all documents and communications as confidential. The current system does not require mandatory sexual harassment training and pays out settlements using taxpayer’s funds without revealing that violations occurred or the names of the members of Congress or their staffs that committed the violations.
We need our Congressional representatives to support a revised sexual harassment process that establishes a zero-tolerance policy, makes it crystal clear what actions constitute sexual harassment, and states that all Congressional employees have a duty to report in a timely manner instances where they’ve suffered sexual harassment or they have witnessed sexual harassment of others. Unpaid workers on Capitol Hill (interns, fellows and pages) should be eligible for the same protections under this policy as full-time staff. Training must be mandatory for all Congressional representatives and staff. Since sexual harassment is often a power move by a supervisor over a subordinate, the policy must protect victims from retaliation. Those who’ve been subjected to harassment or witnessed it must know they have protection against later retaliatory acts. Victims of sexual harassment should be promised confidentiality to the greatest degree that they desire. The investigation process should be clearly defined, timely, be conducted by an impartial body, and define under what circumstances a settlement is appropriate, who is authorized to make any settlement, and when such a settlement should be made public. The identities of lawmakers or their aides who reach misconduct settlements or have been found to violate the sexual harassment policy must be disclosed because, in part, such information may result in other victims coming forward.
The Member and Employee Training and Oversight on Congress Act (ME TOO Congress) Act, authored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would require sexual harassment awareness training and reform the process available for staffers to file complaints. Speier and Gillibrand are proposing to make the counseling and mediation optional and set a deadline for filing a complaint to 180 days after the alleged violation. The bill would also require a Congressional office to allow a complainant to work remotely or authorize a paid leave of absence if requested. In addition, their bill would require the Office of Compliance, which would be renamed the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, to create an online reporting system. Members of Congress accused of harassment would also have to repay the Treasury for the settlements paid to victims.
All members of Congress need to step up and support these or similar reforms. Constituents need to put their elected officials on notice that they will hold them accountable next November for how they respond to this crisis.