In a recent interview, California Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins said it was “disappointing and hard to hear that there are (legislative staffers) who still have concerns” about the harassment reporting process in the Legislature.
“I would just encourage staff to reach out,” she said. “We want to make sure they’re being addressed.”
But I can tell you what really happens when victims “reach out” to the California Legislature after they experience harassment. And I can assure you it has little to do with making sure the concerns of victims are being met.
In 2017, almost 200 women signed a letter detailing pervasive harassment issues in the Capitol. In response, the Legislature created the Workplace Conduct Unit (WCU) — hailed as an “independent” investigatory body free of political interference — to probe all allegations of harassment and discrimination. The Legislature also passed a new Policy on Appropriate Workplace Conduct that created clear guidelines for what constitutes misconduct and mandated that supervisors report any allegations of harassment to the investigatory unit.
Requiring supervisors to report all allegations of misbehavior directly to the WCU may seem like an insignificant change, but it was considered an essential reform. As Assembly Member Laura Friedman, D-Glendale (Los Angeles County), explained in a 2018 interview: “In the past, you were asking HR people (who work for the Legislature under partisan leadership) to make a determination … which will always be seen as being biased.”
The goal wasn’t just to hold Harvey Weinstein-like predators accountable, but also to adjudicate smaller workplace incidents before they spiraled into something bigger — and to prevent favoritism from clouding the waters of an investigation. Legislative leaders touted this essential reform and accepted the accompanying accolades when they were lauded for providing the greatest worker protections of any state legislature in the country.
In March 2019, shortly after these policy changes were implemented, I joined the district office of Menlo Park Democratic Assembly Member Marc Berman as a field representative. I was 24 years old.
Our district office was just four full-time staffers and a rotating series of interns. From the very beginning, I was told to view our office as a group of friends, rather than co-workers, since we would be spending long days, nights and often weekends, together.
The district director of our office — my direct supervisor — made me uncomfortable almost immediately. My experience working under this district director would ultimately be the subject of WCU investigations and of a workplace harassment, discrimination and retaliation complaint that I filed with the state agency charged with investigating such claims.
I noticed the way my supervisor behaved with another female subordinate employee, who has since moved to Berman’s Capitol office in Sacramento. In front of other staff, my supervisor flirted with this other female employee by, for example, paying for her lunches, eating from the same container as her as if they were on a date and sitting next to her desk all day. He’d subtly but overtly touch her hair, arm and hand. He’d asked her to apply a pain therapy pad to his bare back. In one instance, she asked him to unknot part of her necklace that dangled off the chain. I watched as he pinned her up against his desk, in between his legs, and worked on the necklace for minutes while it lay on her chest.
Some of his misconduct was directed toward me. Once, when I asked him why he treated the other staffer more favorably, he said it’s because she did not have a husband to care for her. I, on the other hand, was recently married — and I understood him to mean that he was interested in women who were willing to flirt with him. My “unavailability” meant that I was not. Beyond that, he would comment on the physical attractiveness of female colleagues — both legislators and staff — including, for example, ranking their bodies on a scale of 1 to 10.
My supervisor reduced me and the other professional women in our proximity to our sexual appeal and availability. It was clear to me through this behavior that for women to advance in the office, we’d need to at least tolerate these exploits, if not play along.
And the degree to which I could choose to play along would come to haunt me down the road.
After four months on the job, I called my chief of staff in the Sacramento Capitol office to file a complaint. I poured out what I had been holding in: the behavior, the discomfort, my confusion, pain and shame — as well as similar stories our interns had shared with me.
There was a palpable silence once I stopped speaking. He told me it sounded like “cliqueness” instead of harassment, and that he’d need to ask my supervisor — whom I had just reported — about my allegation. I begged him not to. He finally agreed and said he would escalate the complaint to Berman and an Assembly human resources consultant. I felt reassured, as I understood that he was obligated to report my allegation to the WCU as well: The Legislature’s new protocol, which is available on the WCU’s website, states that “supervisors,” which includes chiefs of staff, “must report any complaints of misconduct to the Workplace Conduct Unit immediately so that the complaint can be resolved.”
After I hung up with my chief of staff, I sent a follow-up text thanking him. I was genuinely grateful. I didn’t want my supervisor fired. I just wanted his misbehavior to end — and for him to be held accountable if it didn’t. The WCU was created for this very reason.