Since fall, top lawmakers have pledged to rid Washington’s Legislature of sexual harassment and sexism after a series of stories about workplace-climate problems women face at the Capitol.
Roughly halfway through the 60-day legislative session, legislators have taken some steps to alter policies and improve cultural issues in Olympia.
But an effort to create a task force combining state House and Senate leaders with lobbyists and staff administration to discuss larger reform suffered a setback when rank-and-file staff members complained they were not adequately represented in the process.
The failure of lawmakers to fully include staff — and the false start it caused — has frustrated some people who say change at the Capitol say is sorely needed.
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“I’m very dissapointed about where we’re at,” said state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, a Democrat from Tacoma, in an interview with The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network.
“We’re four weeks into the legislative session,” Jinkins said. “We don’t have a table set to really discuss these issues.”
In November, Jinkins helped author a letter signed by more than two hundred women who work or have worked at the Capitol that called for an end to behavior ranging from “inappropriate comments and jokes to unwanted touching and assault.”
The letter, titled “Stand With Us,” followed an October story by The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network in which women described an environment over the last decade where inappropriate comments, lingering hugs, unnecessary touching and unwelcome attention are common.
The letter also came after two former state lawmakers were accused by women of sexual misconduct and assault, and other women — including former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell — told stories of being groped or harassed at the Capitol.
Many lawmakers pushed the task force as the Legislature’s main response to the “Stand With Us” group and the stories.
They introduced House Concurrent Resolution 4413, which would form a group comprised of eight lawmakers from the two main parties, four lobbyists and a staff representative from both the House and Senate designated by administrative officials.
The task force was meant to bring the two legislative chambers together to discuss creating one set of sexual harassment policies and reporting procedures across the Legislature. It would replace the two sets of different regulations currently navigated by staff, lobbyists and lawmakers.
While the House approved the measure in mid-January, there was a backlash from staffers over who was selected to the task force and how many employees would be included in the work group. House and Senate leaders say the concerns were raised in private meetings.
Attempts to address those objections in the Senate have stalled, leaving the resolution all but dead, said Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson.
Nelson, a Democrat from Maury Island, painted the false start as a temporary setback in a long process of truly addressing issues with sexual harassment in the Legislature.
She said she did not initially realize the “complexity” of combating sexual harassment or setting up a task force where staff feel represented.
“This isn’t a ‘let’s hurry up,’ ” Nelson said. “It’s a ‘let’s try to get it right.’ It’s a sensitive issue. And I learn more about that every day.”
Rebecca Johnson, a lobbyist who was instrumental in organizing the “Stand With Us” group, described progress this year as a mixed bag.
Johnson applauded new sexual harassment training requirements in the House and Senate and said “the conversation about sexual harassment seems to be far elevated this year as compared to other years.”
At the same time, she said the slow march toward discussions with the House, Senate, lobbyists and staff has been “a little bit frustrating.”
“Some of the difficulties or some of the conversations around that has really underscored how complicated this issue is,” Johnson said. “There aren’t easy solutions — otherwise we likely would have done them already.”
Johnson and others have been pushing for a new system outside of the Legislature for reporting harassment and workplace complaints.
Currently, staff and lobbyists report issues through a process set up and overseen by political appointees in House and Senate administration. Johnson said women don’t always trust the administrations are looking to protect them, rather than protect lawmakers or the legislative institutions.
A more “neutral” third party could take away some of that distrust, Johnson said.
She said such a policy would hopefully come after united talks.
State Sen. Ann Rivers, a Republican from La Center, told reporters last week she still hopes to have a joint House and Senate task force to discuss reforms, including possibly requiring lobbyists to take sexual-harassment training.
Rivers, who joined the Senate in 2012 after serving in the House, said she was “surprised by the two experiences” she had with procedures and policies in the different chambers.
To solve that problem takes a “universal set of rules,” she said.
With the task force on hold, the House has convened a group to to review workplace culture and related policies and make recommendations to the chamber’s Executive Rules Committee in spring.
The Senate has also created a similar internal task force.
Jinkins also said a broader work group still is the ultimate goal.
She said staff and lobbyists are most susceptible to harassment because of power dynamics at the Legislature. Lawmakers often control the job success of staff and lobbyists, making them less likely to speak out if they experience inappropriate behavior, many women say.
For that reason, Jinkins said staff and lobbyists need to be part of any task force or policy recommendations going forward.
“It’s important that they be at the table,” Jinkins said. “This movement is about giving voice to people who have been victims and letting them help create the solutions, not just letting them say what’s happened to them and then have other people create solutions without talking to them.”