Abused staffers net nearly $1M a year


Taxpayers have paid out nearly $1 million per year in settlements to congressional employees who have been harassed or otherwise treated badly by their political bosses over the past 14 years, according to records from the Office of Compliance.

The payouts stem from hundreds of complaints from employees, some of whom may have been sexually harassed or treated so poorly that third-party mediators were brought in to negotiate cash payoffs to settle the cases.

In fiscal year 2007, for example, the OOC — an agency that administers a confidential dispute resolution system — settled 38 cases, with 25 resulting in monetary awards worth $4 million. In fiscal year 2009 — the most recent year reported by the OOC — the office settled 13 cases for nearly $830,000.

These settlements may be especially relevant if aides who were allegedly abused by former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) seek restitution. Massa resigned under allegations that he sexually harassed male staffers. Quite often, the harassment cases, after a secretive mediation process, can land staffers retroactive raises, vacation time and cash payouts for their perceived pain and suffering.

For privacy reasons, the details of all these cases — including the names of the victims and the alleged harassers — are almost never made public. Lawmakers, regardless of whether they are guilty of workplace violations, do not pay a dime for the settlements, while taxpayers foot the bill for the lawyers.

An unprecedented new report to be released Tuesday by the OOC sheds light on the larger problem of harassment in the congressional workplace — the OOC is often stymied by members of Congress and at times left largely powerless to inform employees about their workplace rights.

When the OOC recently tried to make contact with the Hill’s 30,000 employees to send them a survey gauging their knowledge of workplace rights, the office was blocked from having access to congressional e-mail addresses; only 892 surveys were returned.

Despite the efforts of a few vocal supporters of the OOC and its mission, including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), most workers do not realize the avenues of recourse that the OOC offers in cases of sexual harassment and other workplace disputes, while many members and chiefs of staff are not fully aware of their obligations as employers.

“Educating employing offices about their obligations is just as important as educating employees about their rights. Employing offices who remain unaware of their legal obligations in the workplace are unknowingly opening themselves up to lawsuits, which are expensive, time-consuming, distracting and bring unwanted publicity,” said OOC Executive Director Tamara Chrisler.

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