As state lawmakers continue task force hearings delving into how state sexual harassment claims are handled, Chicago and Cook County officials also are scrambling to make sure they are up to speed on the #MeToo movement.
A Cook County subcommittee will consider Wednesday morning how to better apply sexual harassment rules to commissioners. That work follows amendments requiring each elected official to adopt a non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy, and that whistleblower protections should be applied to anyone who makes allegations of harassment.
It took lawsuits by county public defenders and jail guards alleging detainees are exposing themselves, masturbating and threatening them before a judge ordered that some prisoners must be handcuffed while appearing in courthouses to prevent the abuse.
In November, Chicago Ald. Edward Burke (14th) sponsored an amendment explicitly making sexual harassment a violation of the city’s ethics code.
Beyond the prisoners problem, no other examples of outrageous behavior in Chicago and Cook County have come to light, but if we’ve learned anything from this extraordinary moment in America, it’s that there is plenty of harassment history that has been hidden.
You could be forgiven if, in light of all of this, you were under the impression that elected officials never were subject to sexual harassment laws. They were and are. Federal law, enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, always has applied to elected officials and to the rest of us, but it may be that this moment and movement is needed to shock many of us into understanding that harassment must not be swept aside or tolerated.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature when the conduct, explicitly or implicitly, affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. That definition long has applied to both private and public workplaces.
As newly appointed Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter digs into 27 backlogged cases, which involve more than sexual harassment complaints, state lawmakers might want to consider adopting some processes already in place in Chicago.
Former state inspectors general have complained that officials and others guilty of sexual harassment or other ethical issues know they can resign or count on a wholly partisan ethics board to prevent their cases from going public.
Even if it is a work-around from the traditional EEO reporting structure, in Chicago, if a complaint is made against an alderman or other worker, the process allows for them to represent themselves before the ethics board and seek arbitration if they object to any findings. But if an official decides to retire or move on, the investigative and ethics board work still can continue, and any findings ought to be published and violators held publicly accountable in order to bring closure to the victim and to ensure violators still are held accountable.
One of the many policy victories to come from the #MeToo movement is that all three of these governments are aboard the training train. State and county lawmakers passed rules requiring legislators and lobbyists to undergo training on sexual harassment. Chicago aldermen are expected to add sexual harassment to their annual ethics training for workers, but not lobbyists, after a quick committee hearing last week.
The mandated annual training, the explicit sexual harassment ordinances and rules, and the House and Senate task forces will put clearer processes in place for reporting, investigating and adjudicating sexual harassment complaints against public workers and elected officials. Those are positive steps.
Still, particularly in a state like Illinois — known for the fix being in for those in positions of power — it can be a difficult thing to find the courage to go public with a complaint. Soon, the laws and policies and processes and trainings will be put to the test.
Let’s hope this watershed moment propels victims to seek justice and find it. At all levels of government, and in private workplaces and elsewhere, women and men ought to be treated with dignity.
Madeleine Doubek is policy & civic engagement director for the Better Government Association.