Complaints of harassment and hostile work environments are on the rise on Capitol Hill, where offices aren’t required to keep personnel records, provide mandatory anti-discrimination training or protect whistleblowers despite forcing other government agencies and private employers to do so, according to a new report.
Lawmakers collectively employ about 30,000 people working in crammed Capitol Hill suites or storefront district offices across the country, and at support agencies, including the Architect of the Capitol and U.S. Capitol Police. Roughly two-thirds of legislative branch employees call the Washington area home, according to estimates by the nonpartisan Office of Compliance, which monitors congressional workplace issues.
The office’s annual “State of the Congressional Workplace” report, set for release Thursday, finds that a growing number of congressional staffers are seeking advice on how to deal with harassment and discipline issues.
By law, congressional staffers may choose to meet with OOC officials to review personnel complaints or mediate workplace disputes and may pursue claims in an administrative hearing or refer the case to federal court if the allegations are unresolved.
In fiscal 2010, OOC said it handled 105 new counseling requests and 86 requests for mediation, up from previous years, and said it reviewed a higher number of individual allegations of harassment, hostile work environments, or concerns about promotions.
A majority of the counseling requests came from employees of the Architect of the Capitol and U.S. Capitol Police, with just 19 percent of requests prompted by House staffers and four percent from Senate employees.
“These cases are becoming more complex and sophisticated, often with multiple allegations of discrimination, discovery disputes, and issues relating to the OOC’s rules and procedures,” Tamara E. Chrisler, the office’s executive director, said in the report.
The offices of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and the Capitol Police declined requests for comment.
Eva Malecki, an Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman, said the growing number of requests for counseling from her office are partly because it “encourages its employees to use this additional resource to help them resolve workplace issues.” With 2,600 employees, AOC is one of the largest congressional agencies, she said.
The lower percentage of counseling requests among House and Senate staffers is likely because congressional offices do not publicly post information on worker’s rights in the office or require mandatory employment training, according to reports previously published by OOC’s board of directors. A staffer’s concerns about potentially disparaging the reputation of a lawmaker or political party also likely keep workers from creating a case file, OOC officials said.
And despite its push to become a player in workplace disputes, OOC is often kept out of some of the Hill’s more salient allegations of harassment or discrimination, according to attorney Debra S. Katz, who has handled several employment discrimination cases on Capitol Hill.
In more serious cases, “There typically is a discussion of resolution before the complaint is even filed,” Katz said. “We’ve certainly been involved in a number of situations where the allegations were serious and we were able to resolve it without going” to the OOC.
As it has in previous years, the report once again faulted lawmakers for exempting the legislative branch from significant provisions of national workplace rights laws. Despite laws applying those national workplace standards to the legislative branch, the report said congressional offices don’t keep records required for the enforcement of some workplace rights laws, don’t require anti-discrimination or anti-retaliation training for employees, and don’t provide protections for workers who report violations or allege cases of waste, fraud and abuse.
In the House, Reps. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and Robert Brady (D-Pa.), the chairman and ranking member of the House Administration Committee, said they plan to review the report and ensure staffers understand their rights. Committee staffers also said Wednesday that OOC should have access to House staffer e-mail addresses in the coming weeks so it may communicate directly with employees on worker rights issues.
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