State House authorizes studies of sexual harassment

Democratic lawmakers urge more action

The state House passed two Republican-backed resolutions that launch studies of sexual harassment and misconduct claims in the state Capitol, but House Democrats want more action on the issue.

Lawwmakers passed the two resolutions in response to sexual harassment and misconduct scandals involving state legislators and employees, including two involving payouts totaling $280,000. 

The House Resolutions 828 and 829 – authored by state Reps. Marcy Toepel (R-Montgomery), Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion/Armstrong/Forest) and Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) – create a task force and authorize investigations on how to improve laws, procedures and practices regarding sexual harassment and misconduct involving Commonwealth employees.

H.R. 828 passed on a 193-0 vote, while H.R. 829 passed with a 172-20 vote. 

“We owe it to the victims to remove barriers and make sure the most appropriate and effective safeguards are in place,” said Delozier, a long-time victims’ advocate. “The best way to do this is to evaluate what we already have in place in order to learn how we can address deficiencies to make perpetrators powerless in the workplace.”

The taxpayer-funded review will begin within 25 days and is expected to take up to 12 months to complete.

The task force will consist of employers, attorneys, HR professionals, state agency staff and representatives of victim organizations. It is based on a child protection task force that was formed in response to the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal in 2011.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that our laws reflect the best practices for both public and private sector workplaces, and that they are applied fairly,” said Oberlander, House Republican caucus secretary. “A task force similar to the one we created for child protection will give us the ability to look at the issue from various viewpoints and consider the best avenue for legislative action.”

Toepel, the House Republican caucus chairman, believes a thorough review of the issue will benefit Pennsylvanians. After Gov. Tom Wolf and Democratic lawmakers unveiled their plan to curb workplace harassment and misconduct in April, a group of Republican lawmakers raised concerns of unintended consequences from changing laws too quickly. 

By taking the time to listen to people representing all perspectives, we will be best equipped to improve the professional climate for Pennsylvanians,” Toepel said. 

Democratic lawmakers such as Delaware County state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky do not think the two resolutions are enough.

“Any woman in any workplace knows full well we have a problem with sexual harassment and misconduct that has gone unchecked for generations,” Krueger-Braneky said during the House Labor and Industry Committee meeting in which H.R. 828 was passed. “We don’t need a study to tell us that there must be a fair and impartial process to investigate harassment claims and protections against retaliation against victims and whistleblowers.”

Kruger-Braneky is the prime sponsor for H.B. 1965, which would create an Office of Compliance and clearly define laws and procedures for handling harassment claims arising within the General Assembly. She argues that the House should focus on stalled bills that would prompt action now rather than wait.

Other related bills would amend state law by expanding those covered under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, which does not currently apply to employers with less than four employees and leaves out agricultural and domestic workers, as well as interns and volunteers. 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in January that the state has spent at least $3.2 million in taxpayer funds in the past eight years to settle sexual harassment and misconduct complaints against state employees, ranging from inappropriate jokes to sexual assault.

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