Rhode Island State Senators fail to support victims of workplace sexual harassment in alarming vote

Donna Nesselbush
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The Rhode Island State Senate held their hearing on adopting Senate Rules for the 2019-2020 legislative year on Wednesday evening. One amendment to Senate Rules – proposed by Senator Donna Nesselbush (Democrat, District 15, North Providence, Pawtucket) and seconded by Senator Sam Bell (Democratic, District 5, Providence) – raised the process of addressing and mitigating sexual harassment within the legislative body. The amendment was outlined as follows: “It is the policy of the Senate to maintain a harassment-free and discrimination-free workplace. A Senator who is aggrieved (i.e. feels that they have been harassed or discriminated against) has the right to file a complaint with the human rights commission or the Senate President.” Such a rule would, according to Nesselbush, clarify a pathway for victims of sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination to seek justice within the legislative body.

This proposition strikes Rhode Island at a critical juncture, whilst legislatures across the state struggle to address an insipid culture of sexual harassment. Last year, an email was leaked detailing one Rhode Island lawmaker’s experiences of harassment perpetrated by another Rhode Island lawmaker. Whereas the Rhode Island House has made strides to codify a bill that would enable a special committee on professional conduct to discipline, reprimand, censure, or remove individuals found to have perpetrated harassment, the Senate has yet to establish similar legislation.

In her statements to the chamber, Senator Nesselbush reflected upon the Senate’s failure to codify and clarify a path toward justice for victims of harassment and discrimination, stating, “I looked at our rules, and they were silent on the issue of sexual harassment and discrimination… In the midst of the MeToo movement – in the midst of the Time’s Up movement – we know that sexual harassment is ubiquitous….[This proposal] is symbolic. I think it’s quite odd in 2019 for any legislative chamber, or for any organization, frankly, not to have some policy on sexual harassment.”

Samuel Bell

Senator Nesselbush is right to be concerned. According to research on the frequency of workplace sexual harassment, as many as 58 percent of women report experiencing what they consider “potentially harassing behaviors” in the workplace (Ilies, Hauserman, Schwochau, & Stibal, 2003), while others who experience harassment may struggle to label their experience. More striking still, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ([EEOC], 2016) estimates that upwards of 85 percent of women experience some form of sexual harassment at work. Experiencing harassment in the workplace is associated with a significant range of consequences for victims, including psychological distress (Pavalko, Mossakowski, & Hamilton, 2003), high blood pressure (Broman, 1996; Krieger and Sidney, 1996), heart disease (Broman, 1996), poorer self-reported health than non-victims (Gunnarsdottir, Sveinsdottir, Bernburg, Fridriksdottir, & Tomasson, 2006), and chronic health problems (Williams, Spencer, & Jackson, 1999). Despite these significant outcomes, it is nevertheless rare for victims of sexual harassment to file a formal complaint with their organization (Bergman, Langhout, Palmieri, Cortina, & Fitzgerald, 2002; Lonsway, Paynich, & Hall, 2013). Victims of workplace sexual harassment cite fear of blame, disbelief, inaction, retaliation, humiliation, ostracism, or damage to their career or reputation as reasons not to report experiences of sexual harassment to their employer (EEOC, 2016). It is therefore critical that workplaces establish and communicate a zero-tolerance policy toward perpetration of harassment, and a clear path for victims to seek restitution.

Senator Nesselbush’s sentiment did not seem to be shared by the entirety – or even the majority – of the Rhode Island Senate. Senator Erin Lynch Prata (Democrat, District 31, Warwick, Cranston) argued that sufficient rules and guidance already exist that permit Senators to discuss concerns about harassment with the Senate President and the Human Rights Commission, positioning the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) to act as the human resource department of the General Assembly. Senator Lynch Prata insisted that, “there is a procedure in place. This is redundant, it’s duplicative. There is a rule that covers it. There’s both state and federal statutes that cover it. So, I urge the members to reject this amendment.”

However, in response to Senator Lynch Prata’s dismissal of the proposed amendment, Senator Bell expressed concerns that encouraging individuals to report their experiences to the JCLS may leave them vulnerable to retaliation. These concerns are well-founded – according to a recent task force report by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, whereas only 6-13 percent of individuals who experience harassment file a formal complaint, over 75 percent of employees who speak out against workplace mistreatment face some form of retaliation, either social or professional. Others may not face retaliation, but may instead face organization indifference and minimization of the harassment complaint (EEOC, 2016). Senators Nesselbush and Bell seem acutely aware of this risk, and eager to establish a safe route for victims of workplace harassment to avoid such retaliatory efforts. Senator Bell posed that he, “would challenge any member of this body to put forth an argument that we don’t need a sexual harassment policy,” following up with the assertion that, “we have to respect the right of people who have suffered from sexual harassment to find justice.”

In an effort to clarify the difference between existing legislature and the proposed rule, Senator Bell elaborated upon the rule that supposedly addresses sexual harassment, section 10.20, regarding continuing education and training – All state senators and senate employees shall participate annually in a continuing education program presented by the Rhode Island commission for human rights. Senator Bell asserted that, “continuing education is not justice. Having a program on continuing education is not a process for justice. And yes, it is true that there is currently this process controlled by the Speaker through the JCLS. And I do not believe that it’s a fair process, and I don’t believe that the Speaker should be in charge of these issues in the Senate. I cannot stress enough – continuing education is not a process to achieve justice.”

Senator Lynch Prata pivoted, clarifying her position that, “the Senate Rules don’t provide justice. The Senate Rules provide an avenue by which someone can seek justice if they’ve been aggrieved. The Senate Rules provide a roadmap for how you could seek that justice. They don’t provide justice.”

And to that we, the constituents, say: clearly not.

The final vote on the proposed amendment to the Senate Rules was alarming. Only 2 Senators – Nesselbush and Bell – voted in favor, while 33 of their colleagues voted against the amendment to codify the procedures for sexual harassment victims to seek appropriate justice within the Senate. Rhode Island’s State Senators have just proven that they are willing to offer only limited, and conditional, support to victims of workplace sexual harassment – specifically, victims who may also be their peers, friends, and coworkers. They have chosen to leave their colleagues, especially their women colleagues, vulnerable to harassment, and unable to seek impartial recourse. Whereas Bell and Nesselbush provided impassioned pleas on behalf of survivors of harassment, the apathy from their colleagues was disturbing, palpable, and presents a grim picture of how “effective” the MeToo and Time’s Up movements have been in establishing policy-level change.

  • Bergman, M. E., Langhout, R. D., Palmieri, P. A., Cortina, L. M., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (2002). The (un) reasonableness of reporting: Antecedents and consequences of reporting sexual harassment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 230-242. doi:10.1037//0021-9010.87.2.230
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  • Pavalko, E. K., Mossakowski, K. N., & Hamilton, V. J. (2003). Does perceived discrimination affect health? Longitudinal relationships between work discrimination and women’s physical and emotional health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 44, 18-33. doi:10.2307/1519813
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About Katherine W Bogen 2 Articles
Katherine Bogen is a Project Coordinator in the Department of Psychiatry at Rhode Island Hospital, where she works with Dr. Lindsay Orchowski to implement and evaluate dating violence and sexual assault prevention programming. Ms. Bogen has been published in The Journal of Sexual Aggression, Psychology of Violence, Violence and Gender, as well as by Vox and Girls Gone Strong. In her free time, Ms. Bogen is a vocal social justice activist, focusing on advocating for survivors of sexual violence, celebrating the LGBTQ+ community, and combating antisemitism.