The number of discrimination and harassment claims on Capitol Hill has doubled in the past five years – and taxpayers have shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle those disputes.
A new report out Thursday says 168 claims were made in fiscal 2010 alleging discrimination and harassment – compared to 87 claims reported in fiscal 2006. Fifty-seven of the claims made last year were based on race, while 41 claims involved age, 34 involved gender and 28 involved disabilities, according to the report from the congressional Office of Compliance.
The harassment and discrimination claims stem from 105 cases filed with the Office of Compliance last year, meaning one person could make more than one claim. The vast majority of cases involve the large workforce under Architect of the Capitol and Capitol Police, with about a fifth of the cases coming from House and Senate offices.
While the total number of complaints has risen, the payouts in settlements fluctuate year to year.
In fiscal 2010, taxpayers paid $246,271 to settle nine matters brought to the OOC over the years. That’s a big drop from the previous year, where $831,360 was spent to settle 13 claims. The cash awards settled matters of discrimination and harassment, as well as retaliation claims and disputes over contracts and pay. Since fiscal 1997, taxpayers have footed the bill for more than $13.2 million in cases resolved by the OOC.
Claims of retaliation and intimidation have also grown in the congressional workplace – from 46 claims in fiscal 2006 to 69 in fiscal 2010.
The Office of Compliance (OOC)– which is charged with protecting congressional workers and facilities – is urging lawmakers to take extra measures to ensure Hill staffers are well aware of their rights. The OOC called for all offices to post a list of workers’ rights and require training for managers and staffers on how to prevent inappropriate conduct at the workplace.
“A more informed and educated workforce will lead to a more responsible and productive workplace,” said Tamara Chrisler, the the Office of Compliance’s executive director, in a statement.
Citing confidentiality reasons, the OOC won’t reveal any specifics behind these cases, and it doesn’t say whether any of the cases involve claims against elected lawmakers. These names only become public if a staffer takes the case to federal court.
The OOC’s report also sheds light on potentially dangerous conditions in the congressional workplace. Their investigators found 5,400 hazards – mostly involving electrical and fire-safety issues – on the Capitol complex during the 111th Congress, with one-fourth of those identified hazards considered to be “high risk” to employees and visitors.
“The hazards … present a wide range of risk: some could result in death or extremely serious injury and/or a very high likelihood of occurrence, while others indicate less serious injury and/or a lower likelihood occurrence,” the report read. “However, the cumulative effect of this number of hazards – even if each is comparatively low-risk standing alone – may increase the risk of injury to employees and damage to a facility.”
But the number of identified hazards is a significant decline from previous Congresses. In the 109th Congress, investigators found 13,141 hazards, while in the 110th Congress, they identified 9,250.
In a joint statement, Reps. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and Robert Brady (D-Pa.), whose Committee on House Administration oversees the OOC, noted the positives in the report, such as the steep decline in hazards and that more employees were reaching out to the OOC for its services. They didn’t directly address the office’s request for more visibility and training on employee rights.
“As always, we will continue to work together to address the remaining hazards and ensure employees understand their rights and protections afforded by” federal law, Lungren and Brady said.
Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, said since fiscal 2007, Congress has spent more than $210 million for 55 safety-related projects on congressional property. Improvements undertaken by the Architect of the Capitol include installing more ventilation systems, improving electrical systems, and extending sprinkler and smoke detector coverage.
“The record shows that the level of safety has never been higher and continues to improve,” Malecki said in an e-mail.
The OOC was created to enforce the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which forced Congress to obey various federal labor and workplace safety laws from which lawmakers had previously exempted themselves.
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