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Politics & Government

Workers Filed 'Many More' Than Expected Harassment, Discrimination Complaints At California Capitol

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio File
The California State Senate

The California Legislature received “many more” harassment and discrimination complaints than expected over the past year, according to the new Workplace Conduct Unit that formed in the wake of the Me Too movement.

Staffers filed 181 misconduct allegations during that time, as stated in a letter sent Thursday from Senate and Assembly leaders to legislative staff, which was obtained by CapRadio. Click here to read the full letter.

It may be difficult to draw comparisons between the number of complaints filed last year with the WCU and in prior years. 

The Legislature has previously released data on sexual harassment complaints — there were 33 in 2017 and 17 in 2018. But the WCU, a joint Senate-Assembly body formed in 2019, looks at complaints beyond sexual harassment, including harassment, discrimination and retaliation on the basis of a protected class. 

Thursday’s letter provides broad strokes on findings by the WCU, which resolved 85 of the 181 complaints — but it’s unclear how many of those cases resulted in substantiated accusations or discipline. 

The WCU received a higher number of complaints than anticipated, according to a separate letter written by the unit’s director and sent on Thursday to leaders of the Assembly and Senate. 

Spokespeople for Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon would not say if they will release data on allegations and resolved complaints moving forward, and referred CapRadio to the letters. 

The Legislative Counsel’s office has previously declined to provide CapRadio with data on complaints filed with the newly formed WCU, arguing that it was exempt under public records law and attorney-client privilege.

The Legislature will continue to release results of substantiated complaints against lawmakers and high level staff. 

“I don’t think it’s adequate at all,” said Samantha Corbin, with the group We Said Enough, which has called attention to sexual harassment at the Capitol in recent years. “There’s a way to protect the confidentiality of victims, but still to provide an accurate picture of the scope of the problem and resolutions in the Capitol.”

She says there should be more public disclosure about the number of complaints investigated and substantiated, as well as information on who faced the accusations.

In the letters, the Legislature and WCU expressed optimism about the number of complaints filed by workers at the Capitol.

“The WCU views the number of complaints it has received as a positive reflection of the comfort people have with reporting issues,” Julia Johnson, the unit’s director, wrote in the letter. “The number also supports the Legislature’s decision to create this pioneering unit.”

The WCU had to hire a third investigator, and is currently recruiting for a fourth investigator, after receiving “many more complaints than expected,” according to Johnson. 

In 2018, the Legislature spent nearly $2 million investigating sexual harassment accusations,

WCU director Johnson declined to speak with CapRadio for this story. 

In the legislative leaders’ letter, they also framed the number of complaints as a reflection of staffers feeling “more comfortable with the improved process for dealing with workplace conduct issues.” 

The letter also encouraged staffers to come forward with any potential concerns — and to “never worry that your issue ‘isn’t big enough.’”

Copyright 2020 CapRadio