Legislature takes first step to combat sexual harassment; advocates say it’s far from sufficient

Legislature takes first step to combat sexual harassment; advocates say it’s far from sufficient

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When the N.C. General Assembly’s top staffer announced plans last week to roll out sexual harassment training for state lawmakers and legislative employees, some state lawmakers hailed the move as a good first step.

But women’s rights advocates and experts in workplace sexual harassment tell Policy Watch that the training, which is voluntary for lawmakers, might not go far enough.

“This strikes me as not a real effort to effect meaningful change,” said Laura Noble, a North Carolina attorney who specializes in workplace litigation and sexual harassment.

Noble is one of several advocates and lawmakers who spoke to Policy Watch in recent days, after the state’s legislative services officer, Paul Coble, sent a March 14 email to General Assembly staff that indicated state legislators “will have the opportunity” to complete a 90-minute, online training video provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures. After completing the video, legislators will receive a certificate that they may keep for their own records or forward to the General Assembly’s human resources department.

Meanwhile, all permanent and temporary General Assembly employees, including legislative assistants, will have to take part in a 90-minute, on-site training in April.

Coble isn’t able to make the training mandatory for lawmakers. That would require legislation approved by the General Assembly, officials say.

Yet Noble said lawmakers should draft a bill if they want to urge any “effective” change. She’s not the only one.

Charnessa Ridley, president of the board of directors for N.C. Women United, a coalition of leaders who advocate on women’s equality issues, called last week’s training message a “starting point.” And while Ridley noted that legislator training would be mandatory “in a perfect world,” she hopes there will be follow-up from lawmakers and staff workers to change the culture in the General Assembly.

“I do think accountability is important, and where better to model that than here?” said Ridley.

Coble’s email came two weeks after a Policy Watch investigation uncovered allegations of sexual harassment and unwanted kissing by Rep. Duane Hall, a Wake County Democrat. Those reports spurred an outpouring of calls for Hall’s resignation from top Democrats, including House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson and Gov. Roy Cooper. Hall has denied the allegations and says he will not resign.

Coble’s email did not address the Hall allegations, although Coble told the N.C. Insider in December that training was in the works as the #MeToo movement fed backlashes against powerful politicians accused of misconduct like former U.S. Senate hopeful Roy Moore in Alabama and ex-U.S. Sen. Al Franken in Minnesota.

“It’s probably something we should have done before now,” says Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat who sits on the Legislative Ethics Committee. “I’m sorry it’s taken a couple well-publicized incidents to get us to this point.”

Woodard added that he plans to watch the 90-minute video. “I’m sure I’ll learn something and I’ll view my actions and words more carefully after I view it,” he said. “And I hope my colleagues will as well.”

Last week’s directive also follows a Jan. 30 letter from Jackson, in which the minority party leader urged Coble and House Speaker Tim Moore’s office to craft a new workplace harassment policy for the General Assembly, a legislator and staff training program and a “fair and independent investigatory process.”

Representatives for Moore and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger did not respond to requests for comment. However, Jackson told Policy Watch this week that he’d received a “positive” reaction from Moore’s office.

Jackson added that he agrees with advocates who say the General Assembly may need to do more, including the consideration of mandatory training for lawmakers. The Democratic leader said lawmakers complete ethics training at the beginning of their biennial long sessions. He said that would be the “perfect opportunity” to work in a live, sexual harassment training.

“Just watching a video with no chance for follow-up, with no back and forth, that’s probably a missed opportunity,” Jackson said.

Woodard said he hopes lawmakers from both parties would back required training. “I don’t know if a majority of colleagues in both chambers would or not,” he added. “But I think people need to be aware of the changing social mores.”

Critics say lawmakers should also act to launch an independent, investigative body that would hear harassment complaints, instead of relying on lawmakers to police their own colleagues. It’s an idea noted in the House Democratic minority leader’s January letter, although it’s unclear whether the Republican-dominated House and Senate will consider the proposal.

Coble has not answered multiple Policy Watch interview requests, but in a Feb. 5 response to Jackson’s letter, Coble wrote that he’d taken a “proactive approach” to the issue, having already ordered staff to review and update legislative harassment policies.

Coble wrote that he’d also directed division heads and managers to complete training, in order to give them the “tools and knowledge they need to appropriately respond to employees if they feel that they have experienced harassment.”

Currently, anyone who’s been harassed by a legislator may file a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Committee, a panel of lawmakers that typically fields confidential complaints. The committee’s ethical guidelines bar workplace harassment, including harassment that’s sexual in nature.

However, according to the N.C. Insider, the committee has received fewer than a dozen complaints in recent years and, due to the confidential nature of the panel’s work, it’s unclear if any involved sexual misconduct. A committee member told Policy Watch this week that no complaints of sexual harassment have been filed in at least the last two years.

Advocates say that may be because victims of sexual harassment, fearing reprisal, need to protect their anonymity before coming forward. Complaints made to Legislative Ethics Committee leadership must be signed and notarized.

The General Assembly’s employee manual also includes language forbidding workplace harassment and outlining a complaint process that funnels through leadership in the General Assembly’s two chambers or Coble’s office.

The General Assembly policy is similar to workplace harassment rules set down in the state human resources manual, which was last revised in 2014.

Yet, the legislature’s policy hasn’t been updated since 2006. And, in the last year, numerous legislative aides who spoke to Policy Watch on the condition of anonymity said they were either unaware of a General Assembly sexual harassment policy or unaware of the proper channels for filing a complaint.

Advocates say the lack of awareness about General Assembly policies is a matter of real concern.

“We need to create a culture that promotes all the things we need to make the change,” said Ridley. “Policies that speak to that shouldn’t be hidden.”

Karla Altmayer is co-founder and co-director of Healing to Action, a Chicago-based nonprofit that advocates to counter workplace harassment. She says it’s not uncommon for workers, whether in the public or private sector, to be oblivious to such policies.

Employers should create specific guidelines and regularly train workers throughout their careers, she said.

“The reality of all the workplaces, whether it’s Silicon Valley, Hollywood, a local restaurant or a state legislator’s office, there are experiences of workplace sexual violence,” said Altmayer.

Noble said North Carolina lawmakers should follow the lead of U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who introduced legislation in December that would require annual harassment training for members of Congress and workers.

Noble pointed out that the state’s #MeToo problems extend outside of the legislature too, noting North Carolina law has no statutory definition of “sexual harassment.”

The practical effect is that employees who may have been harassed cannot bring a legal claim in state court. North Carolina’s Equal Employment Practices Act may offer some legal relief for those who are fired after filing a complaint, but otherwise workers would have to rely on federal courts to bring a claim under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Noble said Title VII includes a number of “burdens” for victims of sexual harassment, not the least of which being that the 54-year-old act doesn’t have any specific sexual harassment language and imposes strict caps on damages.

North Carolina lawmakers could alleviate those shortcomings by drafting reform legislation, she said.

“It seems to me that if we’re a state committed to prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace and making workplaces a safe place, we as a state should be able to commit it to a state law,” Noble added.

For the time being though, multiple lawmakers in the General Assembly tell Policy Watch that they believe the legislature is moving in the right direction, at least as far as it pertains to addressing misconduct in the General Assembly.

“Every person deserves to feel safe in their workplace, and that has not been the case,” said Sen. Terry Van Duyn, Democratic Whip in the state Senate.

Van Duyn applauded Coble for what she called a “good first step.”

“I do think we’ve learned this year that there is a lot more harassment in the workplace than we imagined,” she added. “And I think, as a woman of a certain age, I knew what my experience was, but I didn’t know that other women were experiencing similar things. I love that young women are standing up and saying ‘enough.’”

Indeed, for Ridley of N.C. Women United, the next step in the General Assembly may be more important than the last when it comes to addressing sexual harassment.

“There have to be steps after this,” she said. “Is it changing anything? Are we creating a safe space?”