The latest story of extramarital shenanigans by a member of Congress has brought the issue of sexual harassment of employees from California and the rest of the country who work on Capitol Hill to the forefront. While there have been no reports that the relationship between Louisiana Rep. Vance McAllister and the female staffer he is seen kissing on a video was non-consensual, she is now out of a job. While Rep. McAllister says he is staying put, other Congress members accused of inappropriate behavior with aides or congressional pages ultimately resigned.
The U.S. Congress, which employees about 30,000 people, is not subject to the same employment laws, including those involving sexual harassment, as private companies and even the rest of the federal government. For example, the Senate offers sexual harassment training for all new employees, but the House does not. Further, sexual harassment policies seem to vary among the hundreds of Senate and House members’ offices. A number of congressional leaders and other lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, do have policy guidelines developed by the Committee on House Administration. These are not mandatory across the legislative branch, however.
Even when do’s and don’ts are spelled out, congressional staffers may be afraid to file complaints, particularly against powerful legislators, for fear of losing one of these coveted Capitol Hill jobs. Those who do choose to file a formal complaint need to go to the nonpartisan Office of Compliance. However, according to a lawyer for a group that represents congressional employees in these matters, “It’s a closed process and one without a lot of teeth to it.”
California Rep. Jackie Speier is taking action to try to bring some consistency. After the McAllister tape went public, she introduced a proposal that would require all Congress members and their employees to have annual sexual harassment training. She says she has scheduled a “sensitivity course” for her employees, both here in California and in Washington, D.C., for later this month.
Regardless of where you work or how powerful your employer is, every employee is entitled to a workplace free from harassment. Even if guidelines are not spelled out clearly, anyone who believes he or she is being harassed, or suffering retaliation for reporting harassment, can and should take action. Attorneys experienced in employment law can safeguard employee rights and work to hold perpetrators of sexual harassment accountable.
Source: Santa Fe New Mexican, “McAllister scandal is a reminder that harassment policies vary on Capitol Hill” Ed O’Keefe and Emily Heil, The Washington Post, Apr. 14, 2014