Joe Davidson
Joe Davidson
Columnist

Capitol Hill bias complaints increase

It wasn’t all that long ago, in government time, that Congress held itself above all else in Uncle Sam’s dominion, and the private sector, too, when it came to how employers treat employees.

Congress passed workplace laws, covering things such as prohibition against discrimination based on race, sex and disability, but exempted itself from those laws. It corrected that inconsistency in 1995 with the Congressional Accountability Act.

Joe Davidson

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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“This bill, which applies to the congressional employees the basic protections against discrimination, unsafe working conditions and unfair labor practices which are guaranteed to other American workers, is a long overdue reform. For many decades, Congress routinely exempted itself from laws which it passed to apply to the rest of America — a double standard which increased the contempt which most citizens have justifiably held for this institution. Capitol Hill was the last bastion of arbitrary bosses, long after the struggles of working men and women gained basic human and economic rights for workers in most of our Nation.”

That 1994 quotation from then-Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), now a senator, was pulled from the latest annual report of the congressional Office of Compliance (OOC), which examines allegations about violations of the law. The report, issued last week, shows a sharp increase in discrimination and other complaints in the legislative branch at a time when the Compliance Office has fewer resources to deal with them.

The document says 196 claims were filed in fiscal 2011, compared with 168 the year before. Of those 196, more than half — 101 — were complaints about discrimination or harassment based on race or color. “Sex/gender/pregnancy,” which does not include sexual orientation, was the next highest category, followed by disability.

In addition to the House and Senate, these figures apply to all legislative branch offices, including the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office and the Library of Congress. Job applicants and former employees also are covered in some cases, as are members of the public with disabilities.

The U.S. Capitol Police had the most complaints by far, with 63 percent. The department declined to comment.

Ironically, or perhaps predictably, the increase in legislative branch claims can be linked to the reduction in the Compliance Office’s staff.

“[R]educed funding has meant lay-offs, limited services, and eliminating certain programs,” Tamar E. Chrisler, the office’s executive director, said in a statement published with the report.

“Lack of funding has forced the OOC to eliminate effective education and training programs, that might have otherwise prevented discrimination and harassment cases from occurring,” she added.

A tight budget also means that the OOC has shifted from doing “wall-to-wall” safety and health inspections on Capitol Hill to inspections of hazards that could pose the most danger.

This means “there is no longer a comprehensive system to encourage employing offices to eliminate potential hazards,” Chrisler said. “In addition, we remain concerned that district and state offices have never been inspected by the OOC due to lack of OOC resources.”

Note: I requested an interview with Chrisler to explore these issues in greater depth but was told that any comment from the interview wanted for the record would have to be e-mailed to the OOC for approval. That’s unreasonable, and journalists must push against such restrictions by public officials.

TSA issues in Newark

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is moving to fire 25 transportation security officers and suspend 19 other employees at Newark Liberty International Airport. The disciplinary actions flow from an investigation into a failure by workers to follow procedures in November and December of last year.

The Newark Star-Ledger reported that the probe began last fall as an investigation into an employee suspected of stealing from checked luggage, then expanded into an examination of weak screening-related practices by more workers, which could place airplanes at risk.

Along with the TSA’s move in June to fire eight workers in connection with the investigation, the agency’s current effort means 52 Newark TSA employees have faced disciplinary action. The TSA confirmed that this is the largest personnel action in the history of the agency, which was established in November 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for the TSA, said the decision to take disciplinary actions “reaffirms our strong commitment to ensure the safety of the traveling public and to hold all our employees to the highest standards of conduct and accountability.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

 
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