Study finds rise in harassment claims on Capitol Hill

Claims of racial and sexual discrimination are up on Capitol Hill, and congressional office buildings are rife with hazards for people with physical disabilities, according to a new study issued Thursday.

The 74-page annual report released by the Office of Compliance (OoC), which is responsible for resolving workplace disputes on Capitol Hill, found that charges of discrimination, harassment and retaliation have steadily increased over the past five years.

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The number of discrimination and harassment claims has risen from 64 allegations in 2006 to 196 brought forward in 2011. And alleged instances of retaliation have grown from 44 cases in 2006 to 108 charges in 2011.

The majority — 63 percent — of allegations raised by employees on Capitol Hill came from the U.S. Capitol Police, the OoC found in its study, which looked at the time period from Oct. 1, 2010 to Sept. 30, 2011.

During that time, workers on Capitol Hill raised 142 grievances that alleged 332 separate violations of the Congressional Accountability Act. Counseling, which is the first step to settle a workplace dispute, was able to resolve 28 — or about 20 percent — of those cases. 

The remaining 116 cases moved to mediation, the second phase of dispute resolution at the OoC. The outcome of many of those cases is still pending, but 12 of the cases moved to the final phase, which allows for financial settlements to be reached.

Last year, 23 settlements were awarded, totaling $461,366. That’s an increase from fiscal 2010, when the OoC oversaw nine settlements that cost taxpayers $246,271, but it was a decrease from fiscal 2009, in which 13 settlements were given to staff for a total of $831,360.

Tamara Chrisler, the executive director of the OoC, said that Congress could help avoid some of the costs that result from these types of claims if it provided the office with more money to educate staff on Capitol Hill about their rights.  

“Lack of funding has forced the OoC to eliminate effective education and training programs that might have otherwise prevented discrimination and harassment cases from occurring,” Chrisler wrote in the report.

About 59 percent — 196 — of the 332 issues raised during the initial counseling sessions pertained to allegations of discrimination and harassment based on the person’s sex, race, age or disability.

Of those 196 charges, more than half — 101 — referred to allegations of racial discrimination or race-related harassment, while 43 were in reference to sexual or gender discrimination, and 23 involved allegations that staff were discriminated against because of their physical or mental disabilities.

Over the last five years, the House has had 42 employees request counseling, and the Senate has had only seven staffers do so.

The OoC is in charge of ensuring that Congress complies with the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which grants employees workplace rights in the areas of: healthcare benefit claims, salary compensation, demotions and promotions, disparate treatment, equal or overtime pay, harassment, leave, retirement and termination.

The office also oversees the health and safety standards on Capitol Hill, making sure that the complex of office buildings meets the requirements set forth in the Americans With Disabilities Act.

For the first time, the OoC this year inspected all of the sidewalks and pathways surrounding the three House office buildings. It found a total of 154 barriers to access for people with disabilities, some of which could cause people in wheelchairs to flip backwards or fall sideways. 

Eighty-eight of those barriers were determined by the OoC to be “major inconveniences,” such as sharp vertical changes in the sidewalk, a lack of a curb ramp or objects that protrude. 

The office also found that none of the 36 bathrooms in any of the House or Senate office buildings met ADA standards, from bathroom door handles that were missing to soap dispensers that require two hands to operate.

The OoC, however, was not able to conduct thorough “wall-to-wall” safety and health inspections of the Capitol complex. Because of budget cuts, the office says that it has had to focus its inspections on areas it deems pose the greatest risk to lawmakers, staff and the public. Additionally, the hundreds of congressional offices in the districts and states of members have not been inspected either.