What Illinois can do to fight sexual harassment at work

A lawmaker did something wrong and then several of them colluded to keep it from all of us who employ them to work for us. Are you OK with that? Not me.

SHARE What Illinois can do to fight sexual harassment at work
State Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake

As the clock ticks toward adjournment Friday in Springfield, we’ll learn whether critical workplace ethics protections will get hearings and votes. It looks like private-sector workers might get some key help, but lawmakers still won’t force themselves to be held accountable.

It appeared several weeks ago that some big sexual harassment and discrimination initiatives, developed after a year of #MeToo hearings and work by a Senate task force, were being bottled up in the House. That infuriated state Sen. Melinda Bush, the Grayslake Democrat who co-chaired the task force. She dug in, getting in front of House Speaker Michael Madigan at his annual fundraiser and enlisting help from Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s chief of staff, according to a Center for Illinois Politics report.


Those efforts and some media attention might have done the trick. Bush told me late last week she believes the main components of SB 1829, the Workplace Transparency Act, will get called for a vote, in some form, in the session’s final days.

The private-sector workplace protections would require all employers to offer harassment prevention training. It would prohibit non-disclosure or arbitration agreements in harassment or discrimination cases, unless both parties want it. It broadens the definition of harrassment to include acts committed based on someone’s actual or perceived sex or gender. It adds protections for independent contractors. The legislation also would require some large employers to disclose adverse sexual harassment settlements annually.

“It was frustrating. I don’t like being treated like that,” Bush said of initially being told her legislation would not be considered by House lawmakers after the transparency act passed the Senate 56-0 in mid April. She is cautiously optimistic most of the components of the act will get votes and end up on the governor’s desk.

“This is a big deal. It’s a big piece for the private sector,” she said. “I’m happy where we’re ending up.”

But what about the public sector? What about holding government workers and officials accountable? That might be a case of one step forward, two steps back, again.

Last year, in the session’s final days, Bush and other women senators battled to get legislation approved that, in part, freed the legislative inspector general from having to get permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission, a panel of lawmakers, before investigating sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers and legislative staff.

That was progress. This year, House Majority Leader Greg Harris said proposals that address complaints within the Legislature are being reviewed and revised by lawmakers, stakeholders and state human rights officials in the House with “the goal” of getting them voted on before the session ends Friday night.

One of those being reviewed is HB 1474, a measure sponsored by state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, which specifies rights for those who report harassment or discrimination or any other violation to any state inspector general. That legislation said those who allege violations against public sector workers and officials have a right to understand the process for investigating; to get confirmation their complaint was received; to be told about decisions and actions taken by investigators; to have a lawyer or representative present at interviews and meetings; to submit a statement; and to receive a copy of any final report before it is shared publicly.

“You look at all the issues around workplace harassment and workplace discrimination and we want to be sure we’re doing it consistently,” Harris said.”So far, everyone seems pleased with the result.”

Still, it seems nothing will be done to fully empower the legislative inspector general to launch any investigation, issue any subpoena, and publish any founded report without first seeking the permission of lawmakers on the commission.

Former interim LIG Julie Porter noted weeks ago she was prevented from publishing information about a case in which she found a lawmaker “engaged in wrongdoing.” Let me put that another way: A lawmaker did something wrong and then several of them colluded to keep it from all of us who employ them to work for us. Are you OK with that? Not me.

Porter and at least one of her predecessors repeatedly have called the office “broken,” but state Rep. Kathleen Willis, an Addison Democrat who is part of the House Democratic leadership, said out loud recently, “We understand the life of a legislator better than somebody else does.”

Seriously? Translation: We understand how to protect ourselves from our bad behavior.

So, while it will be wonderful if Bush and Stava-Murray’s protections for private sector workers and victims of public sector workers are approved and sent to the governor this week, until we demand a fully independent legislative watchdog, until we demand legislators and staff are held to the same professional and ethical standards as the rest of us, we’re just fools.

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for political and government reforms.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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