Conn. offices’ policies differ
Connecticut’s Congressional delegation is reviewing its sexual harassment policies — and some are making changes — all in the wake of U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s bungled handling of office abuse that led to her downfall.
All seven U.S. senators and representatives showed Hearst Connecticut Media their office sexual harassment policies. While the rules are largely similar, they differ in subtle and significant ways — the result of not having a one-size-fits-all policy for the U.S. House and Senate.
For example, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s harassment policy prohibits dating unless workers are of equal rank, while U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy’s policy, along with other members of the delegation, is silent on dating.
By contrast, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New
York and the Senate minority leader, is widely known to brag about how many of his staffers have gotten married.
An effort is underway in Congress to expand employee protections, due in part to the national #MeToo movement and recent resignations of high profile lawmakers such as former U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who was forced out over inappropriate interactions with women years before he became a senator.
The Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act (MeToo) is pending in the House and Senate. The bill, which seeks to overhaul 1995 sexual harassment laws and create one policy for Congress, is co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, a former Capitol Hill staffer who experienced sexual harassment first hand.
“Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long,” Speier recently said.
Connecticut’s Congressional delegation — all Democrats — generally support bills to codify and expand protections. But the delegation’s individual harassment rules tend to be generic, and apply only to each member’s office, the Hearst review found.
None of the delegation members — except Esty — said they had received a sexual harassment complaint from an employee. Esty is not seeking reelection this fall because of her handling of that harassment incident.
Tim Daly, Esty’s chief of staff, said the 5th District congresswoman “absolutely believes” the current system of allowing each office to set its own policy does not work.
“Recent events have clearly proven that,” Daly said. “In her final nine months in Congress, Rep. Esty plans to use her power to fight for stronger workplace protections that are uniform for not just Congress, but all levels of government.”
Esty opted to not pursue re-election after calls for her resignation erupted over her handling of a 2016 harassment complaint stemming from a romance between her former chief of staff Tony Baker and a former aide, Anna Kain.
After learning in May 2016 that Baker had threatened and intimidated Kain — including leaving a profanity-laden voice mail that prompted Kain to obtain a protective order against Baker — it took three
months for Esty’s office to complete an investigation.
Baker remained on the job, even attending the August 2016 Democratic National Convention with Esty. When Baker was finally terminated, Esty signed a nondisclosure agreement, gave Baker a $5,000 severance package and a reference that helped him land a job with Sandy Hook Promise in Ohio, an anti-gun group founded after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
The delay disturbed and appalled staff, who witnessed yelling and other inappropriate behavior while Baker remained on the job. Esty earlier this week conceded other female staffers were “victimized” by what they saw and heard.
Daly said after Baker was terminated Esty banned relationships between employees and updated sexual harassment rules to “make clear all forms of harassment would not be tolerated.”
But Daly said Congress needs a unified policy, including dating rules.
“That’s yet another reason why (Esty) believes leaving all 535 individual offices to develop and implement their own polices does not work,” Daly said. “The entire Congress, in fact all levels of government, need to have stronger and uniform workplace protections.”
Working on changes
Murphy said he’s a cosponsor of the #MeToo legislation that, among many provisions, requires accused lawmakers to pay settlements with their own money, boosts transparency of sexual assault complaints, restructures the complaint process and mandates yearly sexual harassment training.
The bill is considered a significant update to sexual harassment and other rules set in 1995. Prior to that date, Congress was exempt from many of the workplace laws that applied to the rest of the federal government and the private sector.
“Nobody working in a congressional office or any other setting should feel afraid to come to work,” Murphy said.
Still, Dana Honor, a spokeswoman for Murphy, acknowledged the office does not specifically ban dating. “In light of recent events, we are reviewing that,” she said.
The staff of U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, is updating their office sexual harassment policy, according to Will Serio, a spokesman for DeLauro. DeLauro supports a uniformed policy for Congress, he said.
She also recently voted for the Congressional Accountability Act that passed the House. The bill includes provisions for a new dispute resolution process and stronger employee protections.
In a recent bipartisan letter to the Senate leadership, all 22 female senators demanded action and an end to a 30 day “cooling off ” period before a harassment complaint can be filed.
Mary Yatrousis, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1, said that while the office has a strict sexual harassment policy, the rules do not specifically address dating among staffers.
“However, we are always looking upon ways to improve our policy,” Yatrousis said. “This is something that we will be taking into consideration.”
The office harassment policy of U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, also does not specifically address dating, said Patrick Malone, the congressman’s spokesman.
“The House Administration Committee is busy finalizing the procedure for new sexual harassment and diversity training,” Malone said.
Blumenthal’s office has had a detailed sexual harassment policy since the senator took office in 2013, said Maria McElwain, his spokeswoman.
The non-fraternization policy prohibits dating between supervisors and underlings and prohibits dating between all staff and interns.
“The office has also had an anti-harassment training requirement for all staff and interns that predates the recent training mandate for Congressional offices,” McElwain said.
Tim Brown, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2, said the office has a strict sexual harassment policy. But Brown said Courtney is looking to improve that policy.
“We strive to provide a working environment that is safe, responsive, and protective of our employees,” he said.