Leaders from an influential group of women demanding the Legislature better address sexual harassment released the first steps in their reform plan Thursday, including a call for a nonpartisan place to report misconduct.
The systems that act as a human resources department at the state House and Senate are overseen by political leadership. Many women who work at the Capitol say the partisan control makes them fear retaliation that would hurt the chances of legislation they’re working on or harm their careers.
Lobbyist Rebecca Johnson, in an email to more than 230 women who signed a letter denouncing the current culture and reporting system at the Capitol, said that a neutral department “could/should” be part of a “successful long-term solution” to protect women who wish to report misconduct.
Johnson is a top organizer for the group that sent the letter, which was titled “Stand With Us.” It originally was sent to leadership in November with more than 170 signatures, but more women have signed on since.
“We’ve heard from a lot of women who feel like they would like to have a safe, neutral place that’s separate from those institutions to be able to share and report experiences,” Johnson said in an interview with The News Tribune, The Olympian and The Northwest News Network.
Most who signed the letter are current and former lobbyists, but signatories include legislative staff, leaders from advocacy groups and a bipartisan mix of lawmakers.
The letter came after a series of reports in early November and late October about allegations of sexual misconduct at the Legislature. A number of women detailed sexual harassment by men who were working as lawmakers at the time. In one story by The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network, women described experiences ranging from groping to inappropriate comments they dealt with on the job in Olympia.
Those stories have been part of a national reckoning with sexual harassment and assault this year that has ended the careers of high-profile men in professions such as politics, media, comedy and television.
Accusations of sexual misconduct against lawmakers currently working in several states, including Oregon, also have surfaced. That has not happened in Washington state, although Johnson said she is aware of women who work in Olympia who have had “experiences with folks who are still around today.”
Some change has already come to Olympia as a result of “Stand With Us” letter and the broader push back against misconduct.
The state Senate recently approved some reforms meant to address sexual harassment, including requiring annual sexual-harassment training for staff and lawmakers. In the past, staff and legislators typically were trained only when they first arrived at the Capitol as new employees.
The House is currently reviewing its policies with the help of an outside consultant and is providing “mandatory refresher” training sessions on sexual harassment, said the chamber’s Chief Clerk Bernard Dean.
But the “Stand With Us” group says more needs to be done.
Besides a more neutral reporting system, Johnson said another top priority is for the state House and Senate to work together on change.
Traditionally, the two chambers have operated independently on the issue and have different systems that act as a human resources department.
Johnson said many women who work at the Capitol feel a consolidated approach to reform would decrease confusion about reporting inappropriate behavior and conduct standards that arises from the separate processes in the chambers.
Ideally, Johnson said, a work group that includes the House and Senate, lobbyists and other Capitol workers would convene and settle on recommendations for larger policy change.
Johnson also recommended a set of “global conduct expectations” in an email to “Stand With Us” signatories.
“We also think it’s really important that there be clear expectations,” she said.
Johnson said their plan was the result of talks inside the group. Nearly 60 women — lobbyists, lawmakers and others — met at an Olympia restaurant this month to strategize and share their stories about working at the Legislature, she said.
Brad Hendrickson, who was recently appointed as Secretary of the Senate, said he plans to review the “Stand With Us Letter” and meet with Senate and House leadership to “address these important matters.”
He called improving the workplace climate and responding to sexual harassment “a top priority for me and for the Senate.”
Dean, in an email, said he expects to meet with lobbyists on the topic, likely in January when the Legislature reconvenes. He also said the House is planning to distribute an anonymous survey to employees this week, followed by some focus group sessions.
Johnson said she’s been heartened by the response so far from top lawmakers to the “Stand With Us” letter and hopes policy change can gain traction during a busy session at the Capitol next year.
Lawmakers convene in January for a 60-day session where legislators will grapple with yet another court order to fully fund public schools in the long-running McCleary education case.
Johnson said she hopes the workgroup and other advocacy starts before the 2018 session in order to build momentum. She also pressed leaders to keep reform to sexual harassment policy at the top of their to-do list.
“The commitment to actually make change, I think, includes a commitment to make sure that this occupies space and priority time during what is also a very very busy session,” Johnson said.
Editor’s Note: This story was reported in collaboration with Austin Jenkins at public radio’s Northwest News Network.