A scene from the 2017 Women’s March Seattle. Photo by Richard Ha/Flickr

A scene from the 2017 Women’s March Seattle. Photo by Richard Ha/Flickr

County sexual harassment policies could be overhauled

One King County councilmember says male-dominated departments have “workplace culture issues.”

The #MeToo movement has made waves that extend to King County’s legislative branch, where councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles wants to “reboot” the county’s approach to dealing with sexual harassment.

Citing the ongoing national public debate regarding workplace sexual harassment and assault, Kohl-Welles unveiled legislation on June 6 that would require all agencies in the King County government to reform their harassment and discrimination policies—rules and procedures which haven’t been updated since 2002.

The #MeToo movement caught on last fall after allegations surfaced that film producer Harvey Weinstein had used his position to commit extensive sexual harassment and assault. Women began using the #MeToo on social media to come forward with their own experiences of harassment and assault. Since then, number of high profile male figures in politics, media, and the entertainment industry have been accused of varying degrees of sexual misconduct.

In the wake of the national movement, Kohl-Welles felt issues of sexual harassment weighing on her conscience and began working on legislation to look inward at how the county deals with the issue. “I do believe there are workplace culture issues [in King County government],” she said. “We have some departments that are male-dominated.”

The employees of the county departments of Adult and Juvenile Detention, Information Technology, Natural Resources and Parks, and Transportation are all over 60 percent male, according to Cameron Satterfield, a spokesperson for the County Human Resources Division. In total, roughly 60 percent of the county’s employees are male.

Specifically, Kohl-Welles cited statistics showing that only a handful of sexual harassment complaints are filed each year among King County’s over 14,000 employees, arguing that the the low figures are a result of harassment getting underreported. According to Satterfield, only one case of sexual harassment was reported to human resources in 2015, one in 2016, and none were filed in 2017. And, according to a 2016 report on workplace harassment from the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Roughly three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct.”

“Employees are reluctant to come forward with complaints, whether it be because of racial slurs, sexual harassment,” Kohl-Welles said. “The idea of filing a formal complaint—possibly facing retaliation, losing one’s job, going through a huge amount of turmoil in one’s life—is intimidating for people.”

To address this, the councilmember proposed legislation would require that each county agency, as well as the King County Council, develop their own definitions of sexual harassment, assault, and “inappropriate conduct,” establish rules and procedures for addressing sexual misconduct incidents, and train staff on how to recognize and combat such behavior. Each department would also report the number of recorded incidents to the council on a biennial basis. The bill also directs agencies to follow recommendations outlined in the 2016 report from the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when drafting their new definitions and policies. County agencies would be required to report back to the council with their plans by September 2018.

Councilmember Claudia Balducci, a co-sponsor of the bill, expressed concern that ensuring that the reforms are actually carried out within the agency bureaucracies is going to take some work. “I’m going to be very interested in sustained implementation,” she said.

While the legislation asks agencies to do the legwork of developing their own harassment policies and procedures, certain elements are mandated by the ordinance, including a “statement” that the identity of individuals filing complaints will be protected “to the extent possible,” as well as an assurance that retaliation against employees that file complaints will be disciplined.

Kohl-Welles believes it’s especially crucial for agencies to define “inappropriate conduct” (i.e. behavior that isn’t explicit harassment or assault by legal standards, but makes employees feel uncomfortable), and to develop a process where employees can “informally” report perceived inappropriate behavior and get the issue resolved without having to file formal complaints. “That is to capture these really difficult situations that may not raise to the level of legal actionable, being actionable legally,” she said.

Under current King County policies, the only two options to address sexual misconduct are to file a formal complaint or do nothing—leaving no official avenue for someone who has experienced inappropriate behavior, but isn’t sure whether it constitutes an official complaint.

“The idea is that an employee who feels uncomfortable, but perhaps intimidated by the thought of filing a formal complaint and fearing intimidation, they can just get information. ‘What are my options?’ ” Kohl-Welles said at a June 6 King Council committee meeting on the legislation.

Mary Ellen Stone, director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, who praised Kohl-Welles legislative effort, told Seattle Weekly in a phone interview that a limiting public view of what constitutes sexual assault and harassment contributes to the issue of underreporting and pervasive sexual misconduct. “We as a society don’t always have a good grasp on what constitutes as sexual assault,” she said. “We often hear from people saying, ‘This is what happened, does that mean it was sexual assault?’ I think it’s particularly difficult when the victim knows the offender. When you take that into the workplace it becomes even more complicated.”

While the ordinance allegedly has the support of King County Executive Dow Constantine—and, theoretically, the various departments beholden to the county executive—the county’s judicial branch is pushing back on the legislation. At the June 6 council meeting, King County District Court judge Donna Tucker said that if the court system were directed to change their policies by the council, the public might think that the courts (and therefore the judicial branch) are being interfered with by the legislative branch of county government.

“The issue is one of perception,” Tucker told Seattle Weekly after the council meeting “When the public thinks that the courts aren’t running themselves, that they are being run by the executive or the legislative, it starts to deteriorate the separation. That’s really the only issue.” She also said that the ordinance should be amended to only make a suggestions to the courts regarding revamping their sexual harassment policies.

But, as written, the legislation still gives agencies a lot of leeway in actually designing and implementing the various policy proposals that they come up. “We’re not per say dictating,” Kohl-Welles told Seattle Weekly. “They have to have certain elements: training options, informal process, reporting mechanisms. We don’t dictate how they are going to do that.”

jkelety@soundpublishing.com

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