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Report: Hill Staffers Need to Know Rights

Following a Congress marred by two employer-misconduct scandals, the Office of Compliance is for the first time recommending that all legislative branch employees undergo mandatory workplace rights training.

Included in the agency’s biennial “State of the Congressional Workplace” report released this week, the recommendation is part of an ongoing effort to standardize harassment training in Congress after the 2009 resignations of Reps. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) and Mark Souder (R-Ind.).

In response to the Massa scandal, and at then-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s suggestion, a section on workplace laws was added to last month’s new Member orientation. But the OOC is taking the Maryland Democrat’s proposal one step further by advising Congress to “mandate anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation training for all employees and managers,” according to the report.

This training would inform employees in Congress and its support agencies how to seek legal remedies to workplace violations. It would also inform managers of their obligations as employers.

Though the training is the only new recommendation in the report, the OOC once again highlights several laws that Congress applied to the private sector and the executive branch, but not to itself.

The Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 applied 12 civil rights, workplace safety and health laws to Congress, but legislators exempted themselves from several statutes.

For instance, the OOC has no authority to investigate retaliation claims, as the Department of Labor can in the private sector. Rather, staffers have to shoulder the cost of litigation on their own.

“While employees have reported to OOC’s safety inspectors instances of harassment and other acts of retaliation because they reported hazards, under current law, the OOC cannot initiate or investigate these claims,” the report states. The report does not detail how prevalent the retaliation claims are in the Capitol complex.

Congress should amend the law to “reflect current workplace rights norms in the private sector and the executive branch,” Barbara Camens, chairwoman of the OOC’s board of directors, said in a statement. “Most of these rights and protections have been fundamental and basic to the private sector for many years.”

The OOC wants the same authority to subpoena health and safety information from legislative branch offices as the Department of Labor has over private companies. Though Congress can provide the OOC with information when asked, it cannot be compelled to.

“Absent such authority, a recalcitrant employer under investigation could easily delay or even disable regulatory agencies from conducting an adequate investigation,” the report states.

That proposal already has bipartisan opposition. House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said Friday that the recommendation seems far-fetched.

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), who led the GOP transition group dealing with House operations, said it would be a “hard sell” because “Republicans would argue there’s too much bureaucracy and interference now, we certainly don’t need it here.”

Rep. Dennis Kucinich said the rules are unnecessary because they already apply to Congress in spirit and it’s a matter of individual responsibility to see them through.

“Those things are ultimately judged by those who elect us,” the Ohio Democrat said. “However, the private sector isn’t elected. They don’t have any accountability unless the government provides that accountability by establishing rules and regulations.”

The OOC also recommends stepping up record-keeping about employee accidents and illnesses. Without the records, the OOC is “hampered in its ability to ... develop information regarding the causes and prevention of occupational injuries and illnesses,” the report states.

Hoyer said Friday that he would be receptive to such a proposal.

“I don’t know why we’re not keeping records,” he said. “We certainly ought to be keeping records of safety violations and making sure we keep ourselves as safe as we want others to keep themselves.”

Workplace-rights record-keeping requirements, such as requests for accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act, should also be applied to Congress, according to the report.

Though some Congressional offices keep such records, there is no standardized protocol directing offices to keep the records in a certain manner or for a certain period of time, as there is in the private and federal sectors.

“Records may be necessary for employees to assert their rights,” the report says. “Such records may also be critical evidence for employers to demonstrate that no violations of workplace rights occurred.”

But Cole said the recommendations add unnecessary bureaucratic impediments to Congress’ work.

“It’s amazing how much of your staff’s time people think they can take for their training programs,” he said. “And I think I probably fill out enough reports now. Congress is probably the most transparent profession on the planet in terms of filling out forms.”

The compliance office also suggests a simple practice that the private and federal sectors adhere to: posting signs informing staffers about civil rights, age discrimination, disability rights, family medical leave and other workplace rights.

“The failure to require notice-posting in the Congressional workplace may explain ... [why] most Congressional employees have limited to no knowledge of their workplace rights,” the report states.

Finally, the report urges Congress to pass a law similar to one introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in the 109th, 110th and 111th Congresses, which would make whistle-blower protections available to legislative branch employees.

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