Despite intense attention on workplace sexual harassment, Capitol Hill employees made fewer inquiries last year to Congress’ watchdog, but the cost of settlements rose, according to new statistics released Friday.
Harassment and hostile workplace issues topped the list of reasons that employees reached out to the congressional Office of Compliance, according to its annual report covering fiscal 2017, which ended last September. Total inquiries to the office were down to 185 from 284 the year before. The initiation of formal complaint resolutions remained mostly steady at 47, down two.
The cost of settlements, eight in all, totaled $934,754. That was 63 percent more than the $573,929 in settlements in 2016 and 16 percent more than $806,450 paid in 2014, the highest recent year. The settlements were for claims of harassment, discrimination and retaliation, as well as contract and pay disputes.
Yet to be known is whether a push for accountability in Congress late in the year will show up in 2018 numbers. A number of lawmakers were caught up in harassment scandals, and leaders and rank-and-file members pushed to revamp the handling of complaints.
House lawmakers moved to overhaul the chamber’s handling of complaints under the Congressional Accountability Act, which governs workplaces in the legislative branch. One major target was the reporting and resolution process, which lawmakers described as arduous and secretive.
The OOC report gives some indication that staff were showing greater interest in dealing with harassment on Capitol Hill. In a six-week period beginning in November, after the new fiscal year started, requests for training from congressional workers more than doubled. There were also twice as many visits to the OOC’s website for resources on how to report sexual harassment.
The spike came as the #MeToo movement reached Capitol Hill, and employees became more aware of the resources available to them to respond to harassment or discrimination. Congressional hearings on the shortcomings of the system drew public attention to the challenges faced by accusers.
In fiscal 2017, of 156 information requests from covered employees on specific workplace issues, harassment and hostile work environment topped the list with 37 inquiries. There were 21 requests about so-called disparate treatment and 20 about general protections under the Congressional Accountability Act.
Currently, when there is an alleged violation of the law, employees can request formal counseling within 180 days of the incident. There were four formal requests for counseling filed against Senate offices, one involving an unnamed member office and three for non-member offices, also unnamed.
There were 10 formal requests for counseling filed against House offices: seven for member offices and three for non-member offices. Of the 133 total formal requests for counseling, 83 were focused on unlawful discrimination, which includes sexual harassment.
The long periods of mediation and counseling currently required under the CAA would be made optional and investigations would be conducted by the general counsel of the new Office of Congressional Workplace Rights under a recent House-passed bill. Anti-harassment legislation in the Senate has not yet been taken up, and advocates have said they will push for action this year.
The House-passed bill to amend the CAA would require members of Congress to personally pay for any settlements to victims in cases where they are the alleged harasser. Members would have 90 days to repay the Treasury for the amount of the award or settlement before their salary would be withheld.
The House and Senate both passed resolutions in late 2017 to require employees and members to be trained in harassment and discrimination prevention.
“Capitol Hill, like so much of the rest of the country, has been spurred to redouble its efforts to protect its workplaces from sexual harassment,” said Barbara Childs Wallace, who heads the OOC’s board, in a statement.