Federal officials coming to Salem after Capitol harassment training goes badly – Statesman Journal



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Catch up on the week in Mid-Valley news from Feb. 4-8. Lee Clarkson, Statesman Journal

Top brass from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will visit the Oregon Capitol this week to discuss a workplace training session that legislative staff described as deeply upsetting and that spurred a senator to dissuade others from attending future training.

The incident Tuesday afternoon also brought back to the surface simmering concerns of workplace harassment and the Legislature’s culture of tolerance toward such behaviors just three weeks into the 2019 legislative session. 

“This is real, the Senate has to stop ignoring it, and it’s time for our leadership to take accountability, apologize to these women,” Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said during an impassioned speech on the Senate floor Thursday. “I will not be attending the training, and I hope you don’t make your staff do so, either.”

Gelser also reiterated her request for a discussion on the floor of the Senate about the culture of workplace harassment in the building, which has so far not occurred.

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Details about the hours-long training in question were laid out in letters, testimony and private conversations in the days since.

Laura Hanson, Gelser’s chief of staff, wrote that she had to step out of the session for 20 minutes to calm down after having a physical response to the “deeply offensive and troubling” language the trainer was using.

Hanson wrote that the trainer encouraged victims not to report unwanted advances or risk being perceived as “tattlers.” She said the trainer also joked about how “snitches get stitches” in regards to filing a complaint with HR.

Gelser reiterated these specific concerns during her floor speech. 

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Hanson and others came to the conclusion that the trainer wasn’t briefed on the recent history of sexual harassment and unwanted touching at the Capitol. Hanson wrote that the trainer was “dismissive” of sexual harassment when it was brought up.

Sexual harassment has been a contentious issue at the Capitol since allegations against former Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, became public in fall 2017. 

In the intervening months, more complaints and detailed reports painted the Capitol as an unsafe workplace for staff, interns and legislative members alike.

Gelser was the first to publicly accuse Kruse of unwanted touching. He later resigned. 

“It was my hope that the training today would encourage victims of workplace harassment to come forward,” Hanson wrote. “Instead, the training made it clear that we are better off negotiating with our harassers, deflecting their advances or laughing off inappropriate behavior or touching.”

On Wednesday morning, emails were sent to staff inviting them to provide feedback to Employee Services or legislative leadership.

The offices received no fewer than seven letters, including one co-signed by 23 staffers. There were also at least two formal conversations. All but one response described the training as upsetting. The sessions are capped at around 35 participants.

The EEOC Respectful Workplaces training focuses on preventing and reporting harassment. Trainers are supposed to go over acceptable conduct in the workplace, tools for responding to harassment, intervention techniques and respectfulness.

Staff members who attended a similar training in October said they didn’t hear any rhetoric along the lines of the offensive language reported this past week.

According to legislative staff, due to the federal government’s partial shutdown in January, training was postponed and the trainer used in October was not available for the rescheduled dates.

“I’ve read the complaint letters, and none of that came up in our training,” said Lisa Taylor, assistant legislative director for Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. “I thought it was quite a useful training back when we took it.”

In previous years, harassment training was handled in-house, but having more robust training became one point of emphasis following the Kruse scandal.

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EEOC officials coming to Salem Friday

Better training was also recommended by the Oregon Law Commission in its report analyzing the Legislature’s harassment policies.

“We are committed to building a better workplace environment where we prevent hostile actions before they occur and where everyone is treated with dignity and respect,” Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, wrote in a joint statement to House and Senate staff members Thursday. 

“We have much more work to do on this front, and we look forward to partnering with the Capitol community as we continue the efforts to improve the culture and make the Capitol a welcoming place for all,” they wrote.

Legislative leadership requested a formal response from the EEOC and confirmed at week’s end that leaders from the commission would visit Salem for a “listening session.” That meeting is scheduled for Friday morning and will be open to legislative members and those who were at Tuesday’s training.

The workplace training for staff that was scheduled for Friday morning will be postponed.

“We will be scheduling additional staff training from trusted trainers in the coming weeks,” Betsy Imholt, Courtney’s chief of staff, wrote to senators.

Contact Connor Radnovich at [email protected] or 503-399-6864, or follow him on Twitter at @CDRadnovich

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