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Dozens of California Government Agencies Failed To Ensure Sexual Harassment Training

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

When correctional officer Sophia Curry reported an inmate at California State Prison in Folsom for sexual harassment, supervisors ignored her request to address the situation.

About a week later, when a supervisor ordered Curry to patrol the unit without a partner, the inmate brutally attacked her.

The state paid Curry $1.6 million in 2015 to settle the suit. Her attorney Pamela Price says the case reflects the importance of training supervisors to handle sexual harassment complaints — before the situation escalates.

“The training has never taken hold in California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” said Price. “In the cases I’ve done in the last 30 years, this problem has not gotten better.”

And they’re not alone: A CapRadio investigation found dozens of agencies failed to provide sexual harassment training to supervisors in recent years, in violation of state law.

California requires all agency supervisors receive sexual harassment training. Last year, however, nearly 60 percent of agencies surveyed by the State Personnel Board did not provide this training, up from 25 percent in 2016 and 32 percent in 2017. Some larger agencies, like the Department of Corrections, failed to train hundreds of supervisors, while several smaller ones didn’t train any.

Since 2016, the State Personnel Board has identified nearly 1,800 state government supervisors at dozens of agencies who did not receive the required training.

Suzanne Ambrose, executive officer of the State Personnel Board, says the noncompliance exposes the state to liability and can create hostile work environments.

“Supervisors who aren’t aware of those requirements or don’t know how to identify sexual harassment — we can assume they’re not in there proactively addressing it,” she said.

Since 2017, the Me Too movement has exposed widespread sexual harassment in Hollywood, media and politics, and the We Said Enough campaign cast a spotlight on California government. The issue became a flashpoint in the Legislature last year, sparking investigationsresignations and a flurry of legislation.

State agencies and regulatory bodies, by comparison, have come under less scrutiny. But interviews with state officials and a review of compliance reports and documents obtained through public records requests reveal a sprawling bureaucracy that has struggled to keep up with state laws on sexual harassment training.

Samantha Corbin, co-founder of We Said Enough, says supervisors are the first line of defense against sexual harassment in the workplace. If they’re not properly trained, “the likelihood that things move forward in a way that is appropriate [and] remedies the situation is pretty low.”

The Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which is responsible for enforcing the sexual-harassment training law for public and private employers, has never issued a violation order against a state agency.

Director Kevin Kish says his department lacks an effective mechanism to enforce compliance, adding that training often “falls through the cracks”  — until a state worker files a sexual harassment complaint.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration says it has taken notice and expects all agencies to be at or near full compliance with the training requirements by July.

Until then, Jessica Stender, senior counsel with the group Equal Rights Advocates, says a failure to adequately train supervisors poses risks beyond sexual harassment in the workplace.

“It’s part of a broader power structure that keeps women and others from succeeding,” she said.

Lack Of Compliance ‘Inexcusable’

Former Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes introduced the law requiring sexual harassment training for supervisors more than a decade ago. She says she wanted supervisors to better serve employees and ensure workplaces were safe environments for everyone.

The law requires businesses with 50 or more workers and all state agencies to provide two hours of sexual harassment training to new supervisors within six months of being hired or promoted. Existing supervisors must receive follow-up training every two years.

Agencies can secure training and resources through the Department of Fair Housing and Employment or the state Department of Human Resources, also known as CalHR, or through private vendors.

The law went into effect long before the Me Too movement, but Reyes says sexual harassment in the workplace was still on many lawmakers’ radar.

“At that time, there were allegations against the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in regards to sexual harassment,” Reyes said. “There were allegations floating around the state Capitol around sexual harassment cases being settled.”

Reyes calls state agencies’ neglect of the law “disheartening.”

The State Personnel Board issues an annual report that surveys agency compliance and considers failure to complete sexual harassment training a “very serious” issue. Since 2016, 34 of the 95 agencies surveyed did not provide the training to at least some.

“Without proper training, supervisors are not prepared to properly respond to issues involving sexual harassment, which limits the department’s ability to retain a quality workforce, impacts employee morale and productivity, and subjects the department to liability,” the reports state.

The State Personnel Board cites a lack of tracking processes and enforcement, failure to collect and retain training certificates, and lack of trainer availability as the cause of noncompliance.

Additional documents obtained by CapRadio through public records requests detail the degree of noncompliance at different agencies.

The Department of Corrections failed to train the most supervisors — by a wide margin.

An audit last year found the department neglected to provide training to 682 supervisors. It is also among the largest surveyed by the State Personnel Board in the last four years, with more than 8,500 supervisors.

Department spokesperson Vicky Waters said the agency has improved compliance, reducing the number of untrained supervisors to about 80 as of May 1.

Other agencies had more than 100 supervisors who did not receive sexual harassment training. In 2017, the State Personnel Board determined the California Health Benefit Exchange — more commonly known as Covered California, the state’s health insurance marketplace — failed to provide sexual harassment training to 135 of its 237 supervisors.

The agency declined to comment, but it implemented a new tracking system for training and began notifying supervisors of training requirements

The 2019 survey, which is still underway, found the Department of Health Care Services failed to provide the required training to 230 of its 720 supervisors. The agency did not respond to requests to discuss the survey, and has yet to submit an action plan.

Several smaller agencies failed to train all of their supervisors.

The State Personnel Board’s 2016 audit found the state Horse Racing Board, for instance, did not provide training to all nine of its supervisors and the Board of State and Community Corrections did not train all 27 of its supervisors. The Horse Racing Board said it later provided training to all supervisors, and the Board of State and Community Corrections implemented a tracking system following the audit, according to their corrective action plans submitted to the State Personnel Board. Neither agency responded to requests for comment.

Lax tracking methods also proved to be an issue.

The Department of Industrial Relations, for example, said it tracked training completion by manually updating an Excel spreadsheet. The agency, which did not respond to two emails requesting comment, failed to provide sexual harassment training to 23 of its 102 supervisors. Its corrective action plan states it was developing an electronic tracking system and would send email reminders to noncompliant supervisors.

Stender with Equal Rights Advocates, a civil rights organization that promotes gender equity in education and the workplace, says failing to train supervisors sends a message to employees about workplace culture.

“Effective and robust sexual harassment prevention training is important to show their workforce that they take this issue seriously [and] that workers will be believed when they come forward,” Stender said.

Some agencies neglected to train relatively few supervisors, but were still considered noncompliant in State Personnel Board reports.

Overall, among the noncompliant state agencies identified since 2016, about 11 percent of supervisors — or 1,779 in total — did not receive the required training.

Ambrose says those percentages are too high and “absolutely” need to come down.

Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response, says failure to train supervisors puts employees at risk and creates legal liability for the state.

“It’s inexcusable that government agencies aren’t taking their responsibility seriously,” Friedman said.

‘California Is Going To Owe A Lot More Dollars’

There is no central database for monitoring sexual harassment complaints across California government agencies, although CalHR is currently developing one.

This makes it difficult to evaluate if a correlation exists between a lack of supervisor training and higher rates of sexual harassment complaints.

But some of the most expensive sexual harassment settlements in recent years involved agencies that failed to train supervisors.

During a three-year period between 2014 and 2017, the state paid more than $25 million to settle sexual harassment claims, according to a report by The Sacramento Bee. Of the 10 most expensive, seven involved agencies that did not provide supervisor training, according to State Personnel Board records.

Neglecting to train supervisors can lead to more sexual harassment complaints and higher demands from victims, according to Reyes.

“If someone sues for sexual harassment … and they find that the state of California was out of compliance, the state of California is going to owe a lot more dollars,” she said.

The Department of Corrections paid the most in settlements, shelling out more than $15 million from the middle of 2014 to mid-2017.

The settlements included a $10 million payout to four young men who were wards at a correctional facility in Chino, which has since closed. A lawsuit alleged a staff counselor coerced the young men into performing sexual acts in exchange for placement in good jobs at the facility and contraband like televisions and cell phones.

In 2015, the department paid more than $2.6 million to a group of correctional officers and department employees.

Curry, the correctional officer who suffered the inmate attack, received $1.6 million from the settlement. She reported the inmate for masturbating in front of her and described him as “a threat to all female staff,” according to court documents. She claimed supervisors ignored her requests to relocate and psychologically evaluate the inmate.

On the night of the attack, Curry’s male supervisor reassigned her partner to another task, leaving her to patrol the unit alone, according to court documents. The inmate slashed her face and neck with a metal can lid before throwing her down a flight of stairs. Prison officials searched the inmate’s cell after the attack and found drawings of Curry in sexually explicit poses, worshiping the inmate and of the inmate stabbing the officer.

The other plaintiffs in the case alleged the department failed to address widespread sexual harassment incidents in prisons. While many of the incidents involved inmates, the lawsuit claims supervisors repeatedly ignored requests from female officers to mitigate the issue.

“Many employees were either discouraged from reporting the sexual harassment by supervisors or declined to report the harassment for fear of retaliation by CDCR administrators,” the lawsuit states.

Another plaintiff filed 115 reports of sexual harassment on more than half-a-dozen inmates in 2009 alone. The lawsuit claims the district attorney didn’t take up any of the cases for prosecution — "even reports including threats of violence coupled with indecent exposure or exhibitionist masturbation.”

Price, the Oakland-based trial attorney who represented the group of women, says training compliance is a factor in sexual harassment cases.

“Training supervisors, or not training supervisors, is a very good way to determine whether an employer has accepted their responsibility to protect their employees,” she said.

In a 2016 settlement, the state agreed to pay $750,000 to resolve a lawsuit filed by a female correctional officer against the department. She claimed a male correctional officer made unwanted sexual comments and touched her in a sexual manner on multiple occasions. In her lawsuit, the female officer says she reported the conduct to multiple supervisors, who ignored her complaints and retaliated against her.

A $784,500 settlement from 2017 stemmed from a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, Department of State Hospitals and a supervisor named Edmund Corpuz. A group of current and former employees at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton filed the suit after an investigation determined Corpuz planted a video camera in a co-ed bathroom. Corpuz later confessed to planting the camera and was criminally prosecuted in San Joaquin County.

In 2018, the State Board of Personnel found the Department of State Hospitals failed to train 151 of its 876 supervisors. The department did not respond to two emails requesting for comment.

The Department of Corrections did not respond to specific allegations or settlements reported in this story, but referred CapRadio to its corrective action plan, which says the agency implemented a mandatory online training program and automatically enrolled supervisors.

‘Not Taking Sexual Harassment Seriously Enough’

Starting next year, nearly all employees at public and private employers will be required to receive sexual harassment training — not just supervisors. But determining who in state government is responsible for ensuring agencies comply with laws on sexual harassment training is hazy.

State law tasks the Department of Fair Housing and Employment with issuing violation orders or fines against employers, including public agencies.

But department director Kish says he has no knowledge of the department ever penalizing an agency for failing to provide training.

He says the department is typically able to identify training noncompliance only after an employee files a sexual harassment complaint, instead of proactively enforcing the law. He calls this a “catch-up function.”

“You have an enforcement model where basically people are not incentivized … to comply up front,” Kish said.

The department offers a form for state workers to file if their agency has failed to provide sexual harassment training, but Kish says only a handful have been submitted during his four-year tenure.

State officials like Eraina Ortega, director of CalHR, say agency directors should be held responsible for ensuring their supervisors receive training. And if an agency head fails, Ortega says it’s up to the governor to step in.

“I think that’s a question that any administration should ask of itself: ‘What do we expect of our directors?’” Ortega said. “Directors are appointed by the governor, and I think the governor should be able to expect the highest level of commitment to, at a minimum, compliance with the law.”

Spokesperson Brian Ferguson says Gov. Gavin Newsom took notice of agencies’ failure to meet sexual harassment training requirements “shortly after being sworn in.”

“Top administration leaders communicated directly to agency secretaries and under secretaries that these trainings must be completed and that all departments must come into compliance,” Ferguson wrote in an email.

CapRadio has requested the communications with agency leaders.

The Newsom administration tasked the state Government Operations Agency to oversee the effort to get agencies into compliance, according to Ferguson. It expects “most agencies to be at or near 100 percent compliance by July.”

Spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill declined CapRadio’s request to interview Government Operations Agency director Marybel Batjer, stating she was too busy overseeing the “DMV strike team” — another assignment from Newsom. Gledhill did not respond to a follow-up email.

The governor’s July deadline is significantly shorter than the timeline to achieve compliance with sexual harassment training requirements laid out by the State Personnel Board.

“After we have two full cycles, which will be in three more years, then we’ll do a comparison to see if we have repeat offenders,” said Ambrose, who heads the board.

Friedman, chairwoman of the Assembly’s Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response subcommittee, says that’s too long.

“We need to make sure agencies are taking this seriously,” she said. “Taking three years to begin a training program when you’re already out of compliance with state law shows you’re not taking sexual harassment seriously enough.”

Reyes, the former Assemblywoman who authored the 2006 sexual harassment training law, called on lawmakers to take action.

When she introduced the bill, she says, lawmakers showed little appetite for a strong penalty provision. But now, she’s urging them to “put some teeth and some penalties into this law.”

She called for audits of agencies that are not in compliance — and hearings for directors to answer tough questions in a public setting.

“What have you done to put your employees at risk? What have you done to put the state of California at risk?” Reyes said. “If they continue to be out of compliance, if they continue to pass the buck, how many more employees may be victims of sexual harassment?”

Copyright 2019 Capital Public Radio