Congress

Capitol Hill workplace watchdog issues repeat recommendations to Congress

New OCWR report urges Hill to join the rest of the country

The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights has some (not quite) new recommendations to improve the Capitol Hill workplace. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Last year’s overhaul of the workplace complaint reporting and resolution system on Capitol Hill addressed many recommendations from the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights.

But the watchdog group is not done yet. Its latest report sent to House and Senate leaders earlier this month suggests further changes to apply federal workplace standards to the legislative branch.

Congress hasn’t always chosen to apply to itself the same laws that the rest of the country must follow. When it comes to Hill employee rights, the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 sets guidelines for the House, Senate and several related agencies. It was originally passed to help ensure that Hill staffers enjoy at least some of the same workplace and employment protections as private- and most public-sector employees.

Decades later, Congress still hasn’t quite caught up. 

The report from the OCWR, previously known as the Office of Compliance, is full of repeat recommendations the agency proposed to previous Congresses but have not yet been formally issued. 

Every two years, the agency reviews federal employment laws and regulations and determines if they cover — or should cover — the legislative branch.

Under the CAA, recommendations by the OCWR board go into effect only once Congress approves them. 

The latest report recommends having Congress join the rest of the federal workforce in implementing updates to the Family and Medical Leave Act, portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

Implementation of the FMLA-related changes in the legislative branch would “reduce uncertainty for both employing offices and employees and provide greater predictability in the congressional workplace,” the board said.

In fiscal years 2008 and 2010, Congress approved changes to FMLA in the defense authorization measures to expand military caregiver leave for families of deployed servicemembers and some veterans dealing with serious injuries and illnesses.

The recommendations also revised the definition of a spouse under FMLA to include same-sex couples. 

“The proposed regulations update the existing FMLA regulations which are now outdated because they do not provide coverage for same-sex couples and do not provide for the additional leave available to certain veterans with serious injuries and their family members,” said John D. Uelmen, general counsel at the OCWR.

The OCWR board made the same FMLA-related suggestions in 2016 but the 115th Congress did not act on them.

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The new report also calls for the legislative branch to comply with investigative subpoenas related to workplace safety and health.

The OCWR enforces the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 similar to how the Labor Department enforces the law on the private sector. It must conduct inspections of covered offices at least once during each congressional session and “provide employing offices with technical assistance to comply with the OSH Act’s requirements,” the report reads. Under the CAA, the agency cannot issue investigative subpoenas during those inspections. The report points out that Congress “exempted itself” from recording workplace injuries and illnesses — a move the OCWR board recommends overturning.

Additionally, the report also recommends whistleblower protections in the legislative branch. It suggests giving the OCWR “investigatory and prosecutorial authority over whistleblower reprisal complaints.”

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