On Thursday, an arm of the legislative branch will release its annual report, but many on the Hill will not recognize the agency’s name. Given its small size and relative obscurity, few would consider the Office of Compliance formidable—except that it is the first stop for congressional staffers filing harassment and discrimination charges against their employers.
Last year’s report revealed 24 claims filed from House and Senate offices and $246,271 awarded in settlements paid for by the Treasury. Incidence of discrimination and harassment is likely much higher, according to labor lawyers and disability advocates, but budget constraints keep OOC from making itself widely known and accessible.
With just 22 employees and a $3.8 million budget, OOC must provide counseling, processing, and confidential mediation for any employee of a member of Congress or six other legislative-branch agencies. It must also identify safety hazards and building violations in every congressional building; inspect the 18 million square feet comprising the Capitol campus for violations of the Americans With Disability Act; and identify every area where Congress has failed to uphold the Congressional Accountability Act.
The Congressional Accountability Act, passed in 1995, established OOC and theoretically makes the same workplace laws followed by the private sector and federal agencies applicable to Congress.
But, according to lawyer Debra Katz, who has represented a number of congressional employees filing harassment charges, OOC inadvertently protects the harassers from facing retribution.
“Congress was basically embarrassed into passing the Congressional Accountability Act because [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] laws pertain to everyone else, and they had no laws to protect their own employees,” Katz said. “But the law created OOC so that, in some measure, it provides another layer of protection for members because it requires employees to go through an added step of mediation before they can file a charge.”
Employees filing complaints have 180 days after an incident to make a claim, but many staffers have never heard of the agency. It requested more funding, not to make the process speedier—a mandate it already follows—but to better educate staffers about the agency’s existence and services. The House Appropriations Committee denied its modest requested increase of $389,000 for its 2013 budget.
“The OOC has been underfunded for many years,” OOC Executive Director Tamara Chrisler said. “We requested only a slight increase ... because we are mindful of the fiscal climate and recognize that everyone has to tighten their belts. What we requested was the absolute bare-bones minimum, and we got less than that.”
OOC mails workplace-rights notices to every congressional employee’s home annually. And this year, for the second time, OOC will participate in new-member orientation. But Chrisler wants employee-rights training to be mandatory and to make each office post signs spelling out workers’ rights, as every federal and private employer is required to do.
This article appears in the October 17, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.