In its second comprehensive briefing on the “State of the Congressional Workplace,” the Office of Compliance found that the number of workplace harassment complaints has climbed steadily over the past five years.
The report also revealed that budget constraints will prevent the OOC from continuing to inspect legislative branch buildings for handicap accessibility. The OOC is the only entity charged with identifying infrastructure challenges to the disabled and making recommendations on the issue to the Architect of the Capitol.
In a third major finding, Congressional and agency offices saw a large decline in occupational and safety hazards from fiscal 2009 to 2010.
The 66-page report for fiscal 2010, which was released today, includes a compilation of workplace safety and quality-of-life statistics, as well as recommendations. The OOC was created in 1995 to enforce the Congressional Accountability Act, the law that gave basic civil, workplace safety and health rights to Congressional employees.
However, the OOC has struggled under various restraints. For instance, the OOC has no authority to investigate retaliation claims, as the Labor Department can in the private sector. Rather, staffers have to shoulder the cost of litigation on their own. Congressional employees are also exempt from whistle-blower protections, and there is no requirement that offices post basic information on workers’ rights or facilitate anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training.
Budget issues are also a concern. The OOC received $4 million through appropriations in fiscal 2011 and is likely to receive a 6 percent cut for fiscal 2012.
“Despite our progress, substantial work still needs to be done to advance rights in the Congressional workplace,” Barbara Camens, the chairwoman of the board of directors of the OOC, wrote in her introduction to the report.
Much of the OOC’s annual report makes recommendations to amend the CAA to remove such barriers, but chances for consensus on revising the 16-year-old law are slim.
State of Workplace Rights
The OOC reported that it was contacted 294 times regarding workplace rights, protections and responsibilities in fiscal 2010, 247 of which were from Congressional employees, including workers in lawmakers’ offices and Capitol support agencies. The majority of the contacts dealt with harassment and “hostile work environments,” a 23 percent increase from fiscal 2009.
It also received 105 new requests for counseling and 86 new requests for mediation based on claims of workplace harassment. The majority of these requests came from employees, former employees or applicants of the Architect of the Capitol, followed by the Capitol Police, the House and the Senate.
The law does not require offices to conduct their own training and outreach regarding harassment and discrimination in the workplace, but the OOC has in the past few years made broader efforts to make its presence known, which could have resulted in the uptick in complaints.
It “shows that more employees are taking advantage of the OOC’s services,” House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and ranking member Robert Brady (D-Pa.) said in a joint statement.
Debra Katz, a lawyer who specializes in employment discrimination and sexual harassment, has represented Architect of the Capitol employees in workplace cases in the past. She suggested that the number of AOC employees reaching out for counseling and mediation could point to a cultural difference between their work environments and those of Congressional staffers.