As Sexual Harassment Reforms Stall in Congress, Statehouses Take the Lead

Since the #MeToo movement started, state lawmakers have been taking more action than their federal counterparts to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment.
by | September 27, 2018
New York Assemblywoman Nily Rozic
“First and foremost, you have to believe survivors," says Nily Rozic, the New York assemblymember who led sexual harassment reforms in her state. (AP/Mike Groll)

Congress has trained its attention this week on the sexual misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. For many, the controversy is a reminder that federal lawmakers have yet to reconcile two bills that would strengthen laws against sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, which would be the most substantial action yet since the #MeToo movement began.

The bills would rewrite how sexual harassment claims are handled, ending a 90-day waiting period before a hearing can be held and making public any settlement reached by Congress. The Senate version, however, requires out-of-pocket settlements only for harassment -- not discrimination.

Meanwhile, roughly half of the states have taken some action to strengthen their sexual harassment policies for people working in state politics.

Last fall, statehouses across the country were roiled by accusations of sexual misconduct and assault as the #MeToo movement began to spread, prompting more women in all fields to openly discuss the day-to-day realities of sexual harassment in the workplace. According to the Associated Press, at least 30 state lawmakers have resigned or lost their jobs because of such allegations since 2017, when #MeToo began.

In New York, for example, harassment scandals inspired a new law requiring the state Division of Human Rights to rewrite sexual harassment policies for public- and private-sector employees.

“First and foremost, you have to believe survivors," says Nily Rozic, the New York state assemblymember who led the reforms. "You have to have an environment where people feel safe coming forward -- and a very transparent, thorough process when people do come forward. And you can’t just brush it aside. You have to deal with it."

In Colorado, Rep. Steve Lebsock was accused of systematic assault and harassment by several of his female colleagues. Rep. Faith Winter led an effort to expel him and has been working to create a better environment going forward. The Colorado statehouse has since hired a human resources person, created a nonpartisan department that fields complaints of sexual harassment and mandated annual sexual harassment training for every person working in the capitol.

Illinois created a sexual harassment hotline and mandated more frequent sexual harassment trainings for both lobbyists and state lawmakers.

While half the states have enacted new reforms or policies to address harassment, half have not. That isn’t discouraging to advocates.

“This time of change, done correctly, will take time. That also means there isn’t a best practice that’s been identified yet,” says Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.

In most cases, the new laws have been championed by female lawmakers. "It shows the importance of having women at the table," says Dittmar. "They come to these issues, unfortunately, with experience."

Women are also helping to make this a bipartisan cause. According to Dittmar, when Illinois lawmakers were handling their own sexual misconduct allegations, female lawmakers from across the aisle would discuss, together, how they wanted to proceed. That stands in contrast to Congress, where the push for sexual harassment reform has tended to be supported more by Democrats.

While statehouses have been addressing sexual harassment, there are concerns among some advocates that inaction in Congress may prevent future victims of sexual harassment from speaking out.

“Watching these women come forward and hearing these things said about them [from Congress members who don't believe them] is awful, and it’s going to have a chilling effect going forward," says Winters. "Why would anyone come forward when we hear these kinds of comments from our legislators?”