By MADISON HIRNEISEN
THE CENTER SQUARE
(The Center Square) – A new coalition of sexual harassment and assault survivors who experienced workplace abuse while working in the California State Legislature are calling on elected officials to review what they call a flawed legislative system for reviewing reports of misconduct.
Stop Sexual Harassment in Politics is made up of current and former political staffers and survivors calling on California lawmakers to hold a hearing reviewing the Legislature’s Workplace Conduct Unit – an independent investigative arm to review legislative discrimination, harassment and retaliation complaints.
The unit was created in the wake of the #MeToo movement hitting the Capitol in 2017, when multiple lawmakers were accused of unwanted behavior in the workplace, the Associated Press reported.
Members of the coalition say “loopholes” in the system have led to a process that further harms victims of assault and harassment within the Legislature.
“Those who created the WCU will tell you it was created to protect survivors, and I absolutely believe them,” Ruth Ferguson, a former legislative staffer and co-founder of SHIP, said during a press conference Thursday. “But loopholes in the system, a complete lack of oversight and policies that are not codified and are not actually followed by leadership have led to a system that uses and abuses survivors.”
Ms. Ferguson shared her story of harassment and retaliation with the San Francisco Chronicle in April, where she detailed her experience reporting misconduct to the WCU. Ms. Ferguson said Thursday that the WCU’s “traumatizing, invasive and unacceptably long” investigation lasted a year.
According to the WCU’s website, individuals who observe “inappropriate physical, verbal, or visual workplace conduct in the Legislature” are encouraged to report it. Supervisors, including members of the Legislature, must report misconduct.
Once a complaint is filed, the WCU reviews it. If it’s within the unit’s jurisdiction, it’s assigned to an investigator, who then gathers evidence for the Workplace Conduct Panel. It reviews the report and “makes recommendations to the Senate Rules Committee and/or the Speaker of the Assembly regarding whether the investigation shows violation(s) of policy,” potentially recommending discipline.
Between February 2019 and February 2022, the WCU received 349 complaints, of which 333 were resolved, according to a letter sent to Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, in March.
Members of SHIP said Thursday that the WCU process needs reform.
Another former legislative staffer, Faith Pulido, helped to co-found SHIP alongside others. Pulido’s story of being touched inappropriately by a co-worker was reported by the San Francisco Chronicle last week. Despite the WCU substantiating this claim, she said the co-worker was recently seen at a legislative event.
Ms. Pulido shared Thursday that during the process of the WCU investigation, she was not offered resources or support and waited “up to six months between sporadic contacts with the investigator.” Ms. Pulido said she faced retaliation from her supervisor, though the WCU did not substantiate the claim.
When she saw her former co-worker working at a legislative event earlier this year, she knew she was “obligated to come forward with my story to protect other members of the Capitol community who feel or have been made to feel unsafe.
“I stand with the individuals who are unable to stand here today, because they have been silenced, or they’re scared to face further retaliation,” Ms. Pulido said.
Legislative leaders said Thursday they are reviewing the WCU process “to get potential improvements in place this legislative session.”
“Everyone wants the Legislature’s culture to get better, and we’ll use all the tools it takes,” Sen. Atkins and Assemblymember Rendon said Thursday.
Ms. Ferguson and other SHIP members are seeking more than an evaluation of the WCU. They’re asking the Legislature to hold a public hearing for survivors to share their stories.
“We believe it is critical to give survivors a seat at the table during these conversations, and to ensure that this internal evaluation does not continue to happen behind closed doors, out of the public eye,” Ms. Ferguson told The Center Square in an email. “We need transparency and accountability to be able to move toward a more equitable future for staffers.”