D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is mandating training to combat sexual harassment for 30,000 city employees to be completed by February 2018.
Bowser's administration began a review of the District's policies in November in light of the growing national spotlight on the issue.
"Sexual harassment violates D.C. values, we take all claims of harassment seriously, and we remain committed to providing a safe working environment for all employees," Bowser said in a statement. "This action will assure our team members that we value their commitment to public service, and make clear that if they are sexually harassed, there are remedies."
The city does not have a centralized system to track the number of sexual harassment complaints, settlements or the amount of taxpayer dollars that are paid out, said LaToya Foster, a spokeswoman for Bowser. Currently, sexual harassment claims are settled within D.C. agencies and not reported to the mayor's office, Foster said.
"As of today, this information has not been compiled and reported, so our administration is doing all it takes to compile this information," Foster said. "We take this seriously."
The majority of Americans say sexual harassment in the workplace is a "serious problem," according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll published in October. Women across industries — politics, restaurants, media — have shared stories about harassment in what has amounted to a nationwide reckoning on the treatment of women in the workplace after the downfall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
"I have no reason to think that the District is different than the rest of the country where there is a lot more harassment than the public is aware of," said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). "The difficulty is that victims are reluctant to report, and the system has not been anxious to deal with this."
Bowser signed an order on Monday to mandate training. Some city agencies have been using that training since 2012, said Ventris C. Gibson, the director of the Department of Human Resources. Gibson said she did not know how many city employees have already completed the training, a 30-minute computer program that requires users to answer questions as they progress.
Bowser's measure also requires 1,500 supervisors to complete advanced in-person training, and it modernizes guidelines. Now, sexting and sending suggestive messages on "self-destructive messaging apps" — like Snapchat — are included in the list of prohibited behavior. The cost of the new order has not yet been estimated, Foster said.
While aspects of Bowser's order could be productive, others "are ill-conceived and poorly thought through," said Debra Katz, an employment lawyer in Washington who represents congressional aides in sexual harassment cases.
Some studies show that online training is often ineffective and can, in some cases, make "harassers more inclined to harass" by providing a "how-to" guide on harassment, Katz said. Training should also be tailored to the nature of the agency's workforce — Department of Corrections staff should receive different training than staff in the mayor's office, she said.
Gibson confirmed that employees across different agencies will complete the same training. She said interactive online training is the "best option" for educating 30,000 employees.
The District's zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment also applies to third-party vendors and contractors with whom D.C. employees might interact.
The order requires that each government agency have a dedicated Equal Employment Opportunity Commission officer or human resource manager to review and investigate sexual harassment claims and report findings within 60 days of a claim being made.
Currently, complaints are filed within individual agencies, in the Department of Human Resources, in the Office of Human Rights and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Foster said.
Jed Ross, chief risk officer for D.C. government, oversees a fund that pays out settlements and judgments on behalf of the city, but he said most settlements in employment discrimination cases are handled by individual agencies. He said the city is working to build a "risk management system" that would centralize information about payments and settlements for all litigation in which the city is involved.
Maryland's legislature will begin tracking sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers and their staff members, as state and local governments across the country examine their harassment policies.