A legislative task force working to prevent sexual harassment in state government met for the first time Tuesday. If the task force succeeds in creating a better culture for state workers, it might also help to protect taxpayers from the costs of sexual harassment lawsuits against the state.
"We are going to set a standard that is high," said State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, who the committee elected chairwoman at Tuesday’s meeting.
Peterson said she has often seen male lawmakers disrespecting women staffers. She said she had been a victim of sexual harassment and assault during her time as a legislator "by someone that many of us, quite frankly, know."
Peterson said she had no intention of revealing who that was. She said she would work to see that it didn’t happen to anyone else, and if it did, that state policies would protect the victim and hold the offender accountable.
Sexual harassment in state government has made headlines recently. Former Secretary of State Tom Schedler resigned amid allegations of persistent harassment. Taxpayers’ portion of the settlement paid to a former state worker was reported to be almost $150,000.
State government also reportedly agreed to pay $85,000 to a former employee and her attorney who alleged Gov. John Bel Edwards’ former deputy chief of staff Johnny Anderson sexually harassed her while both worked for the governor.
In March, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor reported Louisiana had spent about $5 million on lawsuits involving sexual harassment claims since fiscal year 2010. Executive branch agencies reported 330 internal complaints from fiscal year 2013 through 2017, though 77 percent of survey respondents said they had not reported an incident they experienced, the auditor’s office says.
Act 270 of last year’s regular session mandates Louisiana’s first government-wide sexual harassment policy. Task force members say they want to ensure the policy is working and make improvements where necessary.
The House of Representatives already had a robust policy in place for many years, human resources director Shannon Templet said Tuesday. To comply with last year’s act, the new policy includes descriptions of inappropriate conduct and bans retaliation against employees who file complaints, among other additions.
Jerry Guillot, chief of staff of the State Senate, similarly said his body had a policy in place for about 20 years but had added a few things, such as a commitment to providing required annual training.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, clarified that the rules discussed by Templet and Guillot applied to employees of the House and Senate, not elected members. State Rep. Gregory Miller, R-Norco, said on the House side at least, lawmakers were drafting policies for members and expected to get input from the task force.
"This is not going to be something that’s just going to apply exclusively to staff," he said.
By Feb. 15, executive branch agencies will begin reporting complaints to the Division of Administration, said Mark Falcon, an attorney with the division.
Falcon said the new law also applies to lobbyists and third-party vendors who do business with the state. He explained that sexual harassment is defined by state and federal law.
Occasional inappropriate comments, for example, may not rise to the level of sexual harassment but are still unacceptable if they make a coworker uncomfortable, Falcon said. In some such cases, an employee may be told to change their behavior or be disciplined but not fired.
"Our culture has to be changed so that people are willing to come forward," Falcon said.