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Federal Shutdown Nixes Anti-Harassment Training For Oregon Lawmakers, Staff

<p>Minority Leader Carl Wilson and Speaker of the House Tina Kotek pose for a group photo during the opening of the 2019 Oregon legislative session in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.</p>

Bradley W. Parks


Minority Leader Carl Wilson and Speaker of the House Tina Kotek pose for a group photo during the opening of the 2019 Oregon legislative session in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

As the partial federal government shutdown cruised toward a 26th day, add anti-harassment training for Oregon legislators and Capitol staff to the list of casualties.

It’s not a scuttled paycheck or a refuse-strewn recreation area, but for a state Capitol still mired in the fallout of a sexual harassment scandal the cancellation of a planned harassment prevention program is nonetheless notable.

State senators Tuesday morning were scheduled to undergo the training on “ Leading For Respect,” as part of a slate of programming aimed at achieving a better workplace culture. Legislative staff were scheduled to attend a talk on preventing and reporting harassment.

State representatives and their staffs planned to attend the seminars Wednesday.

“Rather than dwelling on legal standards and what NOT to do, this training will focus on WHAT TO DO – the words and actions that promote respect and fairness, and participants’ responsibility for contributing to respect in the workplace,” reads an online description of the course lawmakers were to take. “Supervisors are taught simple but effective ways to coach employees whose behavior might be a problem – early intervention to nip problems in the bud before they rise to the level of illegal harassment.”

The problem: The training is run by employees of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which under the shutdown.

“Irony is when the Oregon Legislature’s new and improved workplace harassment training is canceled because of the Trump federal Government shut down,” state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, tweeted on Monday.

Senate President Peter Courtney, whose office was repeatedly mentioned in a recent investigation into harassment and discrimination at the Capitol, decried the delay. 

"The EEOC training is a top priority for my office," Courtney said in a statement. "This is a world class training, we need it, and we were all set up to have it. I’m very demoralized that the federal government wasn’t able to come together and re-open the government."

The cancellation doesn’t mean Capitol figures aren’t receiving new instruction. Legislative leaders have pledged to reschedule the EEOC trainings, and the program was just one part of what House Speaker Tina Kotek said was roughly 10 hours of mandatory training legislators and employees will be required to attend this week.

Other training sessions lawmakers must attend, Kotek said, include seminars on “full inclusion at the state Capitol,” and a session on promoting civil discourse.

“My expectation for each of you is that you will engage fully and seriously in the educational opportunities that we have coming up this week,” Kotek told members of the House after being re-elected speaker on Monday. “It’s really important to thank you for taking it seriously.”

The trainings are one step top lawmakers are planning as they work to curb what Kotek called “systems and structures that we need to recognize are outdated.”

On Monday, lawmakers also passed new rules that free up people who complain about harassment to discuss their allegations, rather than keeping them confidential, and increased the statute of limitations for filing a harassment complaint from one year to four years. More changes are expected in the coming weeks.

The self-reflection over the issue was forced in late 2017, when Gelser and another senator, Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, filed formal complaints against former state Sen. Jeff Kruse. The complaints led to an investigation and Kruse’s resignation, and resulted in more harassment victims coming forward to describe their experiences.

Most recently, the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries launched an investigation that found top lawmakers had turned a blind eye to harassment issues for years — a conclusion those lawmakers dispute.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.