Abused staffers net nearly $1M a year

Taxpayers have paid out nearly $1 million per year in settlements to congressional employees who have been harassed or otherwise treated badly by their political bosses over the past 14 years, according to records from the Office of Compliance.

The payouts stem from hundreds of complaints from employees, some of whom may have been sexually harassed or treated so poorly that third-party mediators were brought in to negotiate cash payoffs to settle the cases.

In fiscal year 2007, for example, the OOC – an agency that administers a confidential dispute resolution system – settled 38 cases, with 25 resulting in monetary awards worth $4 million. In fiscal year 2009 – the most recent year reported by the OOC – the office settled 13 cases for nearly $830,000.

These settlements may be especially relevant if aides who were allegedly abused by former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) seek restitution. Massa resigned under allegations that he sexually harassed male staffers. Quite often, the harassment cases, after a secretive mediation process, can land staffers retroactive raises, vacation time and cash payouts for their perceived pain and suffering.

For privacy reasons, the details of all these cases – including the names of the victims and the alleged harassers – are almost never made public. Lawmakers, regardless of whether they are guilty of workplace violations, do not pay a dime for the settlements, while taxpayers foot the bill for the lawyers.

An unprecedented new report to be released Tuesday by the OOC sheds light on the larger problem of harassment in the congressional workplace – the OOC is often stymied by members of Congress and at times left largely powerless to inform employees about their workplace rights.

When the OOC recently tried to make contact with the Hill’s 30,000 employees to send them a survey gauging their knowledge of workplace rights, the office was blocked from having access to congressional e-mail addresses; only 892 surveys were returned.

Despite the efforts of a few vocal supporters of the OOC and its mission, including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), most workers do not realize the avenues of recourse that the OOC offers in cases of sexual harassment and other workplace disputes, while many members and chiefs of staff are not fully aware of their obligations as employers.

“Educating employing offices about their obligations is just as important as educating employees about their rights. Employing offices who remain unaware of their legal obligations in the workplace are unknowingly opening themselves up to lawsuits, which are expensive, time-consuming, distracting and bring unwanted publicity,” said OOC Executive Director Tamara Chrisler.

In a series of deep-background interviews done by POLITICO, aides and other Hill employees have complained about everything from unequal maternity leave policies to unwelcome advances to hostile treatment from members of Congress and other superiors.

“I wish I had known about the Office of Compliance,” one former aide to a Texas House member told POLITICO. “When the whole Massa thing came out, we heard about his staff reporting him and were shocked they could report their member. I feel bad for so many staffers who think they can’t stand up for themselves.”

Another Hill aide who is considering reporting a harassment case said: “There are times I’ve wanted to go over [to the OOC], but the general feeling is … you’ll be fired or blacklisted from the Hill.”

The Massa scandal may be a case study in the lack of awareness about the OOC and the inability of Congress to effectively police workplace harassment rules.

Massa staffers, according to their lawyers, suffered through sexual innuendo and similar behavior for months, unaware that they could seek counseling and mediation through the OOC, which was created to enforce the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995.

While the Massa case inspired House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to begin working to improve the OOC’s visibility, the majority of Hill workers still have little to no knowledge of their rights – or the existence of the OOC – largely because of years of communication challenges, according to the OOC report.

Congress has exempted itself from having to inform employees about their workplace rights by posting notices in offices – a practice required by law in the public and private sectors. Congress is also not required to keep records that would show a paper trail of lawmakers’ past misbehavior.

“Being a Hill employee is different from other places because the job is about your name. Bringing a claim is like asserting you aren’t loyal enough. Someone who is loyal wouldn’t bring problems like this up,” said Alexis Rickher, an employment discrimination lawyer with Katz, Marshall & Banks who is currently helping represent one of Massa’s accusers. “With the Massa mess, it’s clear that the younger staffers didn’t have a sense of when things cross the line.”

The OOC is expected to gain access to at least part of the House e-mail system soon and to hold a forum during new member orientation. But no such collaboration is happening on the Senate side, according to aides close to the House’s project. The Senate Rules Committee, which helps oversee the OOC, did not respond to a request for information from POLITICO.

In the meantime, the process of settling workplace complaints remains secretive and byzantine, allowing members of Congress to quietly agree to cash payouts to settle cases and to keep potentially career-ending scandals under wraps.

The OOC offers employees a four-step resolution process. It includes initial confidential counseling, followed by mediation by a neutral third-party mediator. If the employee is dissatisfied with the mediation result, he or she can seek to have the case decided by a third-party hearing officer through the OOC or file a federal civil lawsuit.

“You could imagine the repercussions for a congressman if an allegation becomes public,” said employment lawyer George Chuzi, who represented Christine Niedermeier, a former aide who accused Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) of sexually harassing her several years ago. “It’s worth it to pay them, especially if it’s not their money, just to have the thing kept confidential. It’s worth it to them just to keep inappropriate allegations out of the public airwaves.”

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