Federal officials and watchdogs detailed at a panel on Thursday the lingering and systemic issues in the federal workplace related to preventing and punishing sexual harassment, noting a confusing complaint process, a lack of advocates and insufficient resources to tackle the problem.
The panelists lodged their concerns to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which heard the testimony in preparation for a forthcoming report with recommendations. Much of the discussion at the event titled “Federal Me Too: Examining Sexual Harassment in Government Workplaces” centered on the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and whether it receives adequate funding. Dexter Brooks, the agency’s associate director for Federal Sector Programs, said additional resources would enable EEOC to provide more oversight of individual agencies’ anti-harassment programs.
Brooks also noted that EEOC has no enforcement mechanism if it does not agree with how an agency is operating its equal employment opportunity program. He said a boost in funding would enable the agency to study the issue of retaliation against those who speak out on sexual harassment.
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Panelists also criticized the time constraints of taking a harassment case through the EEO process as a federal employee. Sunu Chandy, who served as an EEOC attorney for 15 years and is currently the legal director of the National Women’s Law Center, said a requirement that federal workers disclose allegations of harassment to an EEO counselor within 45 days of inappropriate behavior is overly onerous. The policy was well-intentioned, she said, but has failed to prevent backlogs from piling up. Among her recommendations, Chandy said agencies should have the capacity to triage complaints “so at least the more egregious ones can be addressed in a more timely fashion.”
George Chuzi, an attorney who represents federal employees at Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman and Fitch, said he has harassment cases that have been pending since 2009.
“It is extraordinary,” Chuzi said. “Who has the resources for a 10-year case against the United States government?”
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who also spoke before the commission, echoed several panelists in suggesting the deck was stacked against victims of harassment in favor of harassers, who have the backing of their agencies in fighting allegations.
Jenna Ben-Yehuda, who served at the State Department for 12 years and is currently the president of the Truman National Security Project, suggested legislation that caps the number of cases an adjudicator can take on at one time. The protracted delays in having a case heard have the effect of silencing people, she said.
Catherine Lhamon, the commission’s chair, called the testimony of Brooks from EEOC “jaw dropping.”
“It is of very serious concern to me that the work of the agency, which is incredibly important to all of us to be able to ensure the workplaces that we want…is hamstrung in its ability to fulfill that duty [and] we aren’t living up to the promises of federal government,” Lhamon said. She called the testimony overall “extremely distressing,” as it highlighted “ongoing proliferation of sexual harassment in the federal workforce and steps we need to see improved across many federal agencies.”
The commission heard from the State Department, which was brought in as an example of an agency struggling to correct its culture of enabling sexual harassment, and NASA, which has received glowing marks for its handling of the issue. Gregory Smith, director of the Office of Civil Rights and the chief diversity officer at State, said his department is making great strides due to Secretary Mike Pompeo’s commitment to finding fixes. Critics said the progress was overstated, and Speier said she is drafting legislation aimed at rectifying the culture at State specifically.
Chandy noted the confusing nature of the processes federal employees must follow when pursuing harassment claims. Claimants must “navigate all these parallel systems,” she said, without clarity on which track is preferred. Ben-Yehuda agreed, saying people “don’t know where to go.”
Debo Adegbile, one of eight USCCR commissioners, suggested federal employees be given the same rights as private sector workers in being able to go directly to the EEOC with complaints, rather than first having to exhaust all internal agency options. Chuzi, meanwhile, said in the current system, the agencies must do a better job of nipping problems in the bud.
“Every time the EEOC rules in the employee’s favor, I see that as a failure in the system because it should’ve been caught earlier,” he said.