Numbers from a report that an obscure legislative agency will unveil on Thursday could further diminish the public’s view of Congress. Twenty-three House and two Senate offices had complaints—including sexual harassment—filed against them by employees in 2011, according to the Office of Compliance, which keeps accusers’ names confidential. And labor lawyers say the report, an advance copy of which was provided to National Journal, may just be scratching the surface.
Mediated settlements in some of last year's cases cost taxpayers $461,366.
The OOC is the mandatory first stop for employees of Congress—including the Architect of the Capitol and the Capitol Police—filing claims against their bosses. Among other duties, the OOC provides information, legal counseling, and confidential mediation between the two parties.
Employees looking for guidance on workplace issues last year most frequently asked about harassment. The number of discrimination and harassment claims filed by employees across the Capitol complex is on the rise. In 2010 there were 168; in 2011 there were 196.
Fear of retribution, potentially expensive legal fees, and Capitol-complex workers’ limited knowledge of the OOC’s existence are the main barriers keeping congressional staffers from reporting harassment, according to Debra Katz, a labor lawyer who has represented staffers filing against their bosses.
In some cases, “they would be persona non grata and never get a job on the Hill again,” Katz said of staffers contemplating reporting harassment. “Some have settled their cases and had to leave the Hill and hope that there would be more jobs with the next election.”
Under the 1995 law establishing the OOC, the Treasury—not alleged offenders—pays settlements on behalf of employers. The highest one-year total for settlements paid was in 2007, when it topped $4 million, well above the $461,366 taxpayers shelled out for claims from 2011.
Of the 25 disputes between congressional staffers and their offices that were reported, 23 were resolved confidentially. One public case was a sexual-harassment charge leveled against Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., which a court dismissed earlier this year.
Reports of retaliation—meaning an employee is treated poorly after filing a claim against his or her boss—have increased, up from 69 in 2010 to 108 last year.
Architect of the Capitol and Capitol Police employees, both of whom are represented by unions, filed the lion’s share of claims. According to labor lawyer Katz, police-department workers, 89 of whom leveled allegations, and Architect of the Capitol employees, 27 of whom made complaints, are less fearful that speaking up will end their careers. They also seek more information about their rights than their congressional counterparts.
The most common complaint across the complex is racial discrimination. However, allegations of age and gender discrimination were also reported. Because one worker might allege several types of discrimination or even harassment, the overall number of complaints reported—196—does not necessarily mean 196 individual employees sought recourse.
News of the services the OOC can provide to staffers is growing, but slowly. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., asked the agency to work with the House Administration Committee, which resulted in training at a new-member orientation in 2010, according to Hoyer spokeswoman Katie Grant. The agency plans to do so again at this year’s orientation.
The committee recently gave OOC access to House employees’ e-mail addresses so the agency could communicate directly with employees about their workplace rights, and, according to House Administration spokesman Steve Dutton, “the committee meets with the OOC on an ongoing and frequent basis.”
The Senate Rules Committee also works with the agency to train employees, though it has yet to give the agency access to Senate employees’ e-mail addresses.
“Of course, there is zero tolerance for harassment,” committee Staff Director Jean Bordewich said.