Another year, another round of sexual harassment scandals in the city and state. First, there was the news that the City paid Marlaina Williams $127,500—of taxpayer money—to settle a lawsuit claiming that Sheriff Jewell Williams sexually harassed her while she worked for him from 2014 to 2017. It is the second time taxpayers have had to pay to settle a harassment suit on behalf of Williams—the first time was in 2012, when he was a state representative—who has denied all allegations, including those by yet another of his employees in the sheriff’s department. (He is also running for reelection this year.)
Immediately on the heels of that, there was the news from Harrisburg about new assault accusations against Butler County Rep. Brian Ellis and old accusations against Delaware County Sen. Daylin Leach. And last week, there was the revelation, reported in The Inquirer, that Senate Republicans have secretly paid at least $23,355 in legal bills for former security director Justin Ferrante, who is being sued for sexual harassment by two former employees. (All have denied the accusations, and Leach has sued three women for defamation.)
The new reporting system has already resulted in about 40 new complaints—an uptick that may indicate it’s working. As Rhynhart has noted, the number of sexual harassment complaints in Philadelphia has been well below what you would expect in a city with over 25,000 employees.
All of this comes on the heels of last year’s national (and local) embarrassment: Delaware County Rep. Nick Miccarelli, accused of assault and harassment by two women in Harrisburg, including fellow Rep. Tarah Toohill. Toohill got a restraining order against Miccarelli, which then required (taxpayer-funded) security guards to stay with her in the Capitol. Meanwhile, Miccarelli refused entreaties to step down and instead resigned at the end of the year with a lifetime taxpayer-funded pension and health care.
So it is good news that, in the wake of last year’s damning report by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart about unaddressed sexual harassment among city employees, Mayor Kenney’s administration has revamped how it handles workplace behavior. The not so good news, at least according to Rhynhart: The changes still do not go far enough to protect employees who have been harassed by their co-workers or bosses.
Office of Labor Relations Director Monica Marchetti-Brock outlined the changes in a press briefing: new and more frequent training for employees and managers (voters mandated training every three years in the 2018 primary); a new online reporting system that is forwarded to Marchetti-Brock’s Employee Relations Unit (ERU) when a complaint has been filed; a centralized case management tracking system that all departments are required to use when investigating a complaint; more oversight of those investigations by the ERU. It also takes discipline out of the hands of department heads, if those department heads are themselves the harassers; previously, they got the final report, and determined the punishment. (Seriously.)
The new reporting system, put in place last fall, has already resulted in about 40 new complaints—an uptick that may indicate it’s working. As Rhynhart has noted, the number of sexual harassment complaints in Philadelphia has been well below what you would expect in a city with over 25,000 employees. That is in part because of what a hotline Rhynhart set up last spring revealed: that many employees thought they had filed official complaints in the past, but the city had no record of them.
It was one of many disturbing findings in the August report: that there was no overarching policy so that each each city department handled complaints differently; that 70 percent of city employees responsible for personnel issues had not received sexual harassment training; that in many cases lower-level employees received harsher discipline than supervisors for the same offense—even though it should be the opposite. And that at least $2.2 million in payouts had been funded by taxpayers.
Kenney and Rhynhart held a joint announcement the day the report was released, and the Mayor promised substantive reforms. Chief among the Controller’s recommendations was having one central city department to review every harassment claim—which could be the ERU. This would remove any potential bias when employees are accusing department heads or fellow co-workers of bad behavior—something Rhynhart said she found was common in the past. The administration’s changes fall short of that. The ERU, which is adding three staff members for a total of 11, will only take on certain investigations; most claims will still be reviewed and adjudicated by personnel in employees’ own departments, with “oversight” by the ERU.
The changes also do not include another key point Rhynhart said was needed: Citywide disciplinary standards that every department applies equally when they find a claim is valid. This would help to avoid the disparate punishments—from written reprimands to firing—that has made the current system unfair.
“This is moving toward centralization,” Rhyhart says, “but is not the spirit of my recommendation in any way.”
Marchetti-Brock says she’s proud of the new policy, which she considers centralization, and which came out of the work of a task force made up of city officials and community organizations like the Womens Law Project, assembled to look at best practices and make suggestions. In particular, she points to Pittsburgh, as a city the task force looked at. But Pittsburgh actually has in place a centralized unit, called the Office of Municipal Investigations, which investigates all complaints about city employees, from inside and outside the government, and then makes recommendations about discipline. In Pittsburgh’s policy, reporting a harassment complaint within a department is a secondary option, and even then employees are told to send complaints directly to the cabinet-level posts—or, in the case of the Mayor’s office, the Mayor himself.
Of course, Pittsburgh is a much smaller city than Philly. And with 25,000 employees, it would likely take more people than Marchetti-Brock has in her department to oversee training of all workers and to investigate all claims. She is in the process of hiring three new staff members, with a $230,000 bump to her budget; that she says, is a good start, though, “you’d always like to have more.” On that point, Rhynhart agrees: She says she’d hoped the Mayor—who has said he will review the policies every year—would put twice as much money towards this, if needed.
“Why not strive for the best situation?” Rhynhart asks. “Let’s make it our goal to really change the process and be bold. What’s missing here is boldness.”
The same could be said for the tepid attempts to address rampant sexual harassment in Harrisburg, where taxpayers laid out $3.2 million to settle claims over the last eight years. (Delaware County Rep. Leanne Krueger, who worked in private business for years, has called it the “the most misogynistic place I’ve ever worked.”) Last year, Krueger introduced her #MeToo bill with several co-sponsors, which would have increased protection and recourse for people who work in the state legislature, in part by creating—yes, you guessed it—an independent office, outside of the Democratic and Republican caucuses, for investigating harassment claims.
It, along with more than a dozen bills intended to curb harassment, punish the offenders and make (mostly) women safer in workplaces across the state, never even made it out of committee—likely for political reasons, as their lead sponsors were Democrats in a Republican-majority legislature. Instead, the legislature passed just one resolution, sponsored by Republicans, to set up a task force to study the issue of sexual harassment. That task force’s work is expected to be completed this spring, when—maybe?—next steps might include policy changes to the way employees are treated in our state capitol. Or, maybe not. So far, just a few bills have been introduced that touch on harassment of state employees and contractors—but the session is still young.
In the meantime, two Republican legislators—including Toohill—have asked their colleagues for support in setting up a Legislative Conduct Review Board to investigate ethical misconduct in the capitol, similar to the Judicial Conduct Board, which investigates allegations of misconduct against judges. Their board would include legislators from both parties, as well as some outsiders.
That, Krueger says, won’t quite solve the problem. The day Toohill and Sen. Lisa Baker, both from Luzerne County, announced their proposal Krueger told Penn Live it didn’t go far enough, for basically the same reason Rhynhart criticized the City: Their board, by including politicians, still would not be fully independent. “As long as legislators are responsible for policing themselves, it will be hard for victims and survivors to have trust in that process,” she said.
Still, with two Republicans as lead sponsors, this proposal may actually gain enough traction to pass the legislature. It would be a step towards policing their own behavior—something that benefits us all, if it at least means we’ll be able to stop paying for the bad actions of some elected officials. And maybe, once they’ve taken care of their own issues, they can start looking outwards, to improving workplace conditions for women across the state. That wouldn’t exactly be bold—it should be a no-brainer—but it would at least give us something we can be proud of.Photo via Flickr