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Report: Harassment Claims Up, Safety Hazards Down Among Capitol Workforce

In its second comprehensive briefing on the “State of the Congressional Workplace,” the Office of Compliance found that the number of workplace harassment complaints has climbed steadily over the past five years.

The report also revealed that budget constraints will prevent the OOC from continuing to inspect legislative branch buildings for handicap accessibility. The OOC is the only entity charged with identifying infrastructure challenges to the disabled and making recommendations on the issue to the Architect of the Capitol.

In a third major finding, Congressional and agency offices saw a large decline in occupational and safety hazards from fiscal 2009 to 2010.

The 66-page report for fiscal 2010, which was released today, includes a compilation of workplace safety and quality-of-life statistics, as well as recommendations. The OOC was created in 1995 to enforce the Congressional Accountability Act, the law that gave basic civil, workplace safety and health rights to Congressional employees.

However, the OOC has struggled under various restraints. For instance, the OOC has no authority to investigate retaliation claims, as the Labor Department can in the private sector. Rather, staffers have to shoulder the cost of litigation on their own. Congressional employees are also exempt from whistle-blower protections, and there is no requirement that offices post basic information on workers’ rights or facilitate anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training.

Budget issues are also a concern. The OOC received $4 million through appropriations in fiscal 2011 and is likely to receive a 6 percent cut for fiscal 2012.

“Despite our progress, substantial work still needs to be done to advance rights in the Congressional workplace,” Barbara Camens, the chairwoman of the board of directors of the OOC, wrote in her introduction to the report.

Much of the OOC’s annual report makes recommendations to amend the CAA to remove such barriers, but chances for consensus on revising the 16-year-old law are slim.

State of Workplace Rights

The OOC reported that it was contacted 294 times regarding workplace rights, protections and responsibilities in fiscal 2010, 247 of which were from Congressional employees, including workers in lawmakers’ offices and Capitol support agencies. The majority of the contacts dealt with harassment and “hostile work environments,” a 23 percent increase from fiscal 2009.

It also received 105 new requests for counseling and 86 new requests for mediation based on claims of workplace harassment. The majority of these requests came from employees, former employees or applicants of the Architect of the Capitol, followed by the Capitol Police, the House and the Senate.

The law does not require offices to conduct their own training and outreach regarding harassment and discrimination in the workplace, but the OOC has in the past few years made broader efforts to make its presence known, which could have resulted in the uptick in complaints.

It “shows that more employees are taking advantage of the OOC’s services,” House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and ranking member Robert Brady (D-Pa.) said in a joint statement.

Debra Katz, a lawyer who specializes in employment discrimination and sexual harassment, has represented Architect of the Capitol employees in workplace cases in the past. She suggested that the number of AOC employees reaching out for counseling and mediation could point to a cultural difference between their work environments and those of Congressional staffers.

“I think that you probably have a different level of training about the existence of these laws for people in more blue collar kinds of positions, who tend to stay in those jobs longer,” Katz said. “And from a career perspective, it’s much more threatening to someone who works in a Congressional office to bring a charge against a Member or staffer, as people are very concerned about retaliation and the effect that will have on a career in politics.”

She added that the numbers could also be deceptive, as Congressional staffers are often able to resolve their complaints with their supervisors before going to the OOC.

It’s troubling that workplace harassment persists, Katz said, but it would be premature to assume that it is becoming a bigger problem on Capitol Hill.

Americans With Disabilities Act Compliance

Legislative branch offices are required to provide access to individuals with disabilities, making infrastructure adjustments such as adding ramps, elevators or automatic doors when necessary.

But in a tight budget year, the OOC says it will not have the resources to keep the Architect of the Capitol informed about which features of Capitol Hill need to be upgraded for disabled people.

“Although the OOC has developed a comprehensive plan to conduct … inspections in a cost-effective way … given current budgetary constraints, it is unlikely that much of this plan will be fully implemented in fiscal 2012,” the report said. “Inspections are performed by the same staff conducting [Occupational Safety and Health] inspections, which due to ongoing safety and health concerns, are given a higher priority within the OOC.”

Lack of funding for the accessibility inspections would be “devastating,” according to Curtis Decker, the executive director of the National Disability Rights Network.

“We have worked with the OOC and have recently seen a lot more energy in its dealings with the several complaints we’ve made, and to have this effort curtailed would be very distressing,” he said.

State of Workplace Safety and Health

The OOC found 5,400 hazards in the Congressional workplace during fiscal 2010, a reduction of 42 percent from the previous year.

The Architect of the Capitol took pride in the numbers.

“We are pleased with this progress, particularly because the amount of square footage of facilities that the [AOC] maintains dramatically increased over that same period of time,” said spokeswoman Eva Malecki, who added that more than half the identified hazards fell within the lowest-risk categories.

A dozen of the hazards, however, would be considered “Category I” by the OOC’s rating system, meaning that they could result in “death or permanent total disability.” Electrical and fire safety issues accounted for the largest percentage of hazards.

Three Category I hazards existed in House buildings in the previous year, and two such hazards were identified in the Senate. All were fire related.

The 2,314 hazards identified in the Rayburn House Office Building in fiscal 2010 put the structure at the top of the OOC’s list for the third consecutive year. The Capitol Police headquarters had the lowest number of hazards at 50.

Because of legal limitations, the OOC has little recourse to trace offices’ compliance with basic safety measures, according to the report.

“Employers in the private sector are required to keep records of workplace injuries and illnesses,” the report says. “With respect to the Legislative Branch workplace … absence of … record-keeping requirements means the OOC lacks what would be a useful tool.”

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