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City of Seattle workers speak out about harassment in the workplace

Seattle City Hall
Flickr Photo/Daniel X. O'Neil (CC-BY-NC-ND)/

The #MeToo movement has reached inside the City of Seattle, with city employees speaking out about sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

As first reported by Crosscut, current and former city employees have formed a group called the Seattle Silence Breakers. Their purpose is to provide support to city employees and spur change.

“This culture of harassment and discrimination has been going on in the City of Seattle for decades,” said Gina Petry, an organizer for Radical Women and a co-chair of the Seattle Silence Breakers.

“It’s known to be engrained in the culture there … and the problem has not been solved,” Petry said.  

Petry said the experiences she's heard about from women working for the city range from being called "babe" or "honey" or "girl" in the workplace, to inappropriate conversations, references to menstruation, and even unwanted touching.

Beth Rocha, a former employee with Seattle City Light, said inappropriate conduct by coworkers bled beyond the boundaries of the office for her.

“Even being out at a happy hour and being asked, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ or ‘Was that guy I saw you in public with, was that your boyfriend?’ and ‘Are you going to have sex with me?’ or ‘When are you going to have sex with me?’ Very personal questions that do cross a boundary no matter where you’re at,” Rocha said.

Rocha didn’t report the comments made at happy hour, but she did take other complaints to City Light’s human resources department. She said many people fear retaliation and don’t speak up. Rocha also said there’s a mistrust among employees of the HR process.

She said she felt the treatment of her complaints didn’t properly address her concerns.

“You still in some ways have a belief in that you work for what claims to be a very progressive city, the city of Seattle, that they would handle things responsibly,” Rocha said.

But she said she felt she was vilified by the HR process.  

Public records obtained by KUOW show that the City Light investigation into Rocha’s complaints of sexual harassment found no improper conduct. The report stated that one of Rocha’s superiors failed to immediately report her concerns to HR and found that one of her colleagues breached City Light’s workplace expectations of mutual respect.

Leaders in City Light say they're committed to creating a respectful workplace and they currently have an outside investigator looking into claims of sexism and harassment within the department.

But Rocha said the workplace culture impacted her so much that it was a large part of her decision to quit her job last week.

And she said not everyone has the ability to take that step.

“I’m very fortunate and privileged that I can speak out and advocate and I do have the freedom to leave. And not everybody has that. And that’s the part that largely contributes to the staying and keeping silent,” Rocha said.

And Rocha isn’t alone in feeling fed up with the city’s workplace environment.

Denise Krownbell is a long-time Seattle City Light employee and a co-chair of the Seattle Silence Breakers. She said workers from all over the city are reaching out to her since the Silence Breakers became public.

“There are definitely a lot of departments that people have come forward and said that they’re dealing with essentially a hostile work environment or discrimination on a daily basis,” she said.

It's unknown exactly how many people have experienced harassment or discrimination working in city departments.

City leaders say all workers should feel safe and respected at work. And they're moving to increase transparency and accountability. 

This month, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkanmandated an extensive reviewof the city’s sexual harassment and discrimination policies. As Durkan noted in a November letter to cabinet members, the current policies were adopted in 1994. "Our workplaces, methods of communicating and the way we live as a city have changed dramatically. It’s time for the city to re-evaluate our current process and reporting system while developing a more robust and effective approach to preventing and addressing workplace harassment.”

Durkan has assembled an interdepartmental team to make recommendations at the end of May about anti-harassment training, reporting mechanisms and personnel rules.

She’s also mandated that all city employees get anti-harassment training annually, instead of only when they're first hired. And she's put new rules in place for settling complaints within departments.

Rocha and other members of the Seattle silence breakers say they’re encouraged by the mayor’s actions.

But Rocha said it’s not enough.

“It’s interesting and good to hear it being said. Of course it’s not enough. Policy changes are not the same as cultural changes,” she said.

To begin changing the culture, Rocha said she’d like to see an independent body put in charge of dealing with employee complaints.

She said she wants to see the city “provide a truly safe outlet for people to be heard regarding discrimination and sexual harassment, which would involve them investing in the employees. An idea that I had is that those types of complaints would go to a civil rights attorney, to somebody who is dedicated to that type of work, not to a pro-employer attorney,” Rocha said.

Krownbell said she’d also like to see training ramped up so it’s not just an online video watched at a desk.

"It needs to be interactive role playing because that's where you get at the gray areas. Because you could have a training that I think is just going to make things really black and white and make it really simple to be like, ‘Oh yes, of course that's sexual harassment’. But that's not how things go," she said.

Krownbell said she wants to see bystander training implemented as well so people who witness harassment feel empowered to speak up. 

And the Silence Breakers group wants city leaders to continue talking to frontline workers like them.

Mayor Durkan’s office has said they intend to include a member of the Silence Breakers group in the interdepartmental team that will be reviewing the city’s policies and making recommendations. They say members of the team are still being finalized but more details will be released soon.

Among the members who have already been announced is City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. She agrees that more needs to be done. Mosqueda said the city can’t check the box and move on when the recommendations are made in May.

"We have to constantly be going back to say are we meeting best practices, are we being inclusive, are we asking front line workers if we are hitting the mark? And if we're not, being willing and open to come back and update policies," Mosqueda said.

Mosqueda also wants to see more women and minority workers in management and leadership positions. Just like social justice movements of the past, Mosqueda said progress won’t be a signal that the work is over.

“Progress is one step, we have to constantly be looking at what that next step is to actually get to the justice that’s being demanded.”

Year started with KUOW: 2015