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#MeTooFed: Sex Harassment Claims Up 20% a Year, Tip of Iceberg

May 15, 2019, 10:21 AM

Federal employee sexual harassment claims jumped in number by about 100 more per year since 2016, according to EEOC data. And a new survey suggests that’s just a drop in the bucket.

The number of sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rose from 485 in fiscal year 2016 to 585 in FY 2017 and 685 in FY 2018, the EEOC data shows. The total number of federal employee harassment claims, including both nonsexual and sexual harassment, went from 6,990 in FY 2016 to 7,560 in FY 2017 and 8,418 in FY 2018.

The boost—about 40% over two years—is likely due to the #MeToo movement, said Dexter Brooks, associate director of federal programs in the EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations. #MeToo took off in October 2017, ignited by sexual harassment claims against movie producer Harvey Weinstein and eventually involving scores of well-known faces.

But even with the recent increase in EEOC claims, vast numbers of incidents are likely still going unreported, Brooks said.

A recently updated governmentwide survey from the Merit Systems Protection Board found that about 14% of federal employees experienced “episodes of sexual harassment” in FY 2016, he said. Both sexes were represented. About 21% of women and about 9% of men in federal agencies reported being sexually harassed, the survey found.

If the MSPB findings are correct, there should be more than 400,000 sexual harassment claims annually, based on a total of about 2.9 million civilian workers, Brooks said. The EEOC’s definition of the federal workforce includes executive branch agencies, the U.S. Postal Service, and other federal entities such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, he said.

The MSPB is the agency responsible for hearing federal employees’ appeals of adverse personnel actions. It also does studies of the federal personnel systems.

“We know there’s undocumented incidents,” even with the increased publicity, Brooks said. This means that the number of claims likely will continue to grow, he said.

Employees in isolated workplaces, those in one-gender-dominated workplaces, and those whose agencies have ineffective anti-harassment programs are the most likely to experience sexual harassment, Brooks said.

Bills to Protect State, Congressional Workers

Staffers for Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who boosted the #MeToo movement in 2017 by describing her own story of sexual abuse at the hands of a former chief of staff in a congressional office, said Speier is working on draft legislation to address harassment at the State Department.

The congresswoman is planning to introduce the bill “in the coming weeks,” the staffers said. She was prompted to draft the measure by reports from State Department employees that sexual harassment and discrimination were “pervasive” at the agency, particularly in the field, the staffers said.

“There’s a lack of transparency and accountability. People don’t know what their rights are or what the process for addressing complaints looks like,” one of the staffers said.

The legislation among other things would require State to do regular “climate surveys” to ensure the department is aware of employee concerns about harassment and discrimination, the staffers said.

“The State Department is really unique. Their workers are more isolated” and many deal with sensitive information that can lead to a culture of secrecy, one of them said.

Speier also is looking to introduce, with bipartisan support, legislation that would increase anti-discrimination protections for congressional employees. The measure, which would build upon legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in 2018 that was cosponsored by Speier, also is expected “in the coming weeks,” the staffers said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Cathleen O'Connor Schoultz at cschoultz@bloomberglaw.com