Representative Christopher Blazejewski (Democrat, District 2, Providence) plans to prefile legislation ahead of the 2019 legislative session that would reform the General Assembly’s policies and procedure relating to sexual harassment and discriminatory harassment by establishing an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Officer and Special Committee on Professional Conduct with broad investigatory and disciplinary powers.
The proposed legislation is based on rule changes made this year by the Massachusetts House of Representatives after it engaged outside attorneys, including former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, to conduct listening sessions with victims, members, and staff and make recommendations for an overhaul of its procedures relating to sexual harassment and discrimination.
“It is critical that the General Assembly reform its policies and procedures relating to sexual harassment, discriminatory harassment, and related retaliation,” said Blazejewski. “The legislature must ensure that all people appearing in its chambers and before its committees – members, staff, and the public – are protected from harassment and have a safe, respectful space to engage in the political process and advocate for their legislation.”
As a matter of policy, the proposed legislation would affirm the General Assembly’s commitment to creating and maintaining a work environment in which all members, employees, and the public are treated with respect and free from any form of harassment, including harassment based on an individual’s membership in any protected class, and affirming that the General Assembly will not tolerate harassment of any kind.
In enforcing this policy, the legislation would require the General Assembly to appoint an independent Equal Employment Opportunity Officer charged with investigating any complaint against a General Assembly member or staff member alleging sexual harassment, discriminatory harassment, or retaliation. The EEO Officer would maintain independence by being appointed for a period for four years, with removal for cause only.
The EEO officer would review complaints alleging sexual harassment, discriminatory harassment, or retaliation based on an individual’s race, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, sexual orientation, age, disability status, genetic information, gender identity, active military personnel status, transgender status, or membership in any other protected class. If the EEO officer deems the complaint plausible, the officer will investigate the allegations confidentially and make a confidential recommendation for discipline within 90 days.
In the case of a General Assembly member, subsequent to the EEO officer’s investigation and recommendation, the member may request a confidential review of the EEO recommendation by a bi-partisan Special Committee on Professional Conduct, consisting of seven House or Senate members, as appropriate, with membership apportioned in a way that takes into account the nature of the complaint and the commitment of the General Assembly to providing fair and equal opportunity in employment. The Special Committee on Professional Conduct would be empowered to recommend private or public discipline, including reprimand, censure, removal from position as a chair or other position of authority, or expulsion, which would then be put before the House or Senate, as appropriate, for action consistent with the requirements of House or Senate Rules and the Rhode Island Constitution. The process and records would be confidential, including with respect to the identity of the complainant, and recommendations would remain confidential unless the General Assembly member faces a recommendation of public discipline. For a staff member, disciplinary action would be taken by the EEO officer in conjunction with the Joint Committee on Legislative Services and the person’s supervisor.
The proposed legislation would also provide for in-person sexual harassment training for members, staff, and interns, including topics such as General Assembly equal employment policies, the complaint and investigation process, workplace harassment and discriminatory conduct, prohibition on retaliation, professionalism and respect, and practices for monitoring the workplace for issues and identifying risk factors.
“In reforming our policies and procedures relating to harassment, we should look to other states in evaluating best practices. We should also be open to considering other potential approaches, including referring complaints to the Attorney General’s Office, the Human Rights Commission, or the Ethics Commission, so long as the policy adopted by the legislature achieves the goal of protecting victims and providing for an independent investigatory and review process,” said Blazejewski. “The legislature should address this important issue by listening to victims, members, and the public, and analyzing best practices from across the country.”
[From a press release]