Connecticut Updates Statehouse Sexual Harassment Policy

by | September 24, 2018

By Daniela Altimari

More than one in five respondents to a survey about sexual harassment at the state Capitol have experienced unwanted sexual contact, uncomfortable visits or phone calls, sexually provocative jokes and stories and other forms of inappropriate workplace behavior.

An anonymous survey released Friday of 593 staffers, legislators, lobbyists and others who work at the state Capitol found that most of those instances of harassment occurred within the past five years.

In roughly 15 percent of those cases, a legislator was the perpetrator, the survey results showed.

Sen. Mae Flexer said she is not surprised by the findings, which provide the basis for new policies addressing sexual harassment.

"I'm grateful that so many people chose to participate in this survey so we can have a serious and honest discussion of sexual harassment at the state Capitol," she said.

Prompted by a national reckoning on workplace harassment and assault, legislative leaders announced in January that they were beefing up policies to address the issue within the halls of state government. On Friday, they signed off on the new rules, which put the behavior of lawmakers under closer scrutiny and outline new reporting procedures for victims.

The new policy enhances the complaint process and details the responsibilities of the investigating authorities, and provides for new steps to protect victims. In the past, the process for lodging complaints about workplace harassment at the Capitol was unclear, but now any lawmaker, employee or outside party who receives a sexual harassment complaint is required to notify human resources.

The new policy also increases training requirements for lawmakers and legislative employees, and extends those anti-harassment rules to all legislative-sponsored events and activities, not just those that take place at the state Capitol complex.

Flexer said the new rules provide more options to report abuse and harassment, adding that she hopes they will empower bystanders as well as victims to speak out.

But, Flexer also noted an omission: "I'm disappointed this policy doesn't provide any clarity on relationships between legislators and staff."

As part of its effort to ensure a nonhostile working environment, the Office of Legislative Management conducted the survey. The study found that nearly half of respondents did not know that the Connecticut General Assembly had a procedure in place for victims of sexual harassment to file a complaint.

Most cases of sexual harassment went unreported, according to the survey: Fewer than 1 percent of victims filed a report, while 6 percent confronted the perpetrator and asked them to stop. Many respondents cited fear of retaliation as the reason for their reluctance to report the incident.

Leaders of all four caucuses at the General Assembly -- Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and House Republican Leader Themis Klarides -- issued a joint statement: "After an extensive review of the results of last spring's survey, and working with experts and outside counsel, we believe that the updated policy makes clear that the General Assembly does not tolerate sexual harassment in any form. Our goal is to provide a work environment in which instances of harassment can be reported without fear of retaliation and where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and free from sexual harassment, both subtle and overt."

In January, as the #MeToo movement began to take hold across the nation, Senate Democrats issued a call for a fresh look at the Connecticut legislature's sexual harassment policies.

At that time, Looney said he was not aware of any payments or settlements of sexual harassment cases involving the legislature. He also said he had not heard of any harassment complaints at the Capitol, unlike more than a dozen other states, including California, Florida, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

(c)2018 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)