New HR job to handle Iowa Statehouse harassment complaints
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republican leaders in the Iowa Legislature are creating a human resources manager position to oversee Statehouse harassment complaints, six weeks after the state agreed to a $1.75 million settlement with a former GOP Senate staffer who reported sexual harassment at work.
Staff for the Republican-controlled House and Senate plan to hire a director of human resources before the legislative session begins in January, said Ed Failor, a senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix. The job, posted since late October, closes Friday.
The new position will be a resource to lawmakers as well as nonpartisan and partisan staffs, according to a job description. The same description does not directly reference sexual harassment issues, though it notes the director will “train managers to supervise employees in compliance with state and federal laws and applicable policies and procedures, including anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and procedures.”
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, a Clear Lake Republican, said in a statement the caucus “will not tolerate any form of harassment. Period.” She said the position would “provide employees with a professional to handle any questions or complaints that they may have.”
Last summer, a jury awarded $2.2 million to Kirsten Anderson, a former communications staffer in the GOP Senate office. Anderson claimed in a lawsuit she was fired in 2013 after she reported rampant sexual harassment in the caucus office. The award was later reduced to $1.75 million as part of a settlement with the state.
Anderson said Thursday she had a lot of questions about the new job.
“I think time will tell how it’s governed and run and managed,” she said.
The HR job comes amid growing complaints about alleged sexual harassment at state capitols around the country that follow sexual abuse allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein. The responses at other statehouses include:
— In California, its state Senate has hired outside investigators to look into complaints of widespread harassment.
— In Rhode Island, the House speaker has said there will be sexual harassment training for the General Assembly, after a lawmaker accused another lawmaker of seeking sexual favors in exchange for bills to advance.
— In Massachusetts, the House speaker has ordered a review of the Legislature’s sexual harassment policies amid allegations of sexual misconduct by legislators or staff.
The hiring decision is being made within the chambers and does not involve an independent state agency. In August, Dix, a Shell Rock Republican, said in a statement his office would consider entering a “contractual relationship” with the Iowa Department of Administrative Services to provide human resources to staff.
“I look forward to working with DAS to ensure a safe working environment exists for all employees,” Dix said at the time.
It was a joint decision between DAS and legislative leadership for the state agency not to get involved in the hiring, Senate GOP officials said. A DAS spokeswoman directed questions to the Legislature. Separately, Democrats were not involved in the decision to hire an HR director, according to Ron Parker, staff director for Senate Democrats.
Experts on sexual harassment issues say the in-house setup raises questions about accountability. Jennifer Drobac, a professor at Indiana University’s law school who studies sexual harassment, said there needs to be clarity on where this manager will report. The job description notes the person will work independently to review and investigate issues, but the exact structure of command is still being sorted out, according to Senate GOP staff.
Separately, Democrats have criticized Dix’s leadership as minority leader during alleged office incidents. They’ve also criticized him for his follow-up response to the lawsuit award. He has emphasized repeatedly that Anderson was fired because of poor work performance.
“If they’re hiring someone to monitor this problem and to be available to correct it, how is that person going to correct it if they have no outside authority and are reporting to the people who created the problem in the first place?” Drobac said.
GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds has previously said there should be some level of independence as the Legislature investigates issues related to sexual harassment. Brenna Smith, Reynolds’ press secretary, said in a statement the governor “is encouraged by the steps the legislature is taking to ensure a safe work environment.”
Smith did not comment on questions about whether the hiring has enough independence from the chambers.
Barbara Rodriguez can be reached on Twitter at @bcrodriguez.