Why LA city received nearly as many sexual harassment claims in 2 months than it did in 5 years

City Hall in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 17, 2017.
City Hall in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 17, 2017.
Daryl Barker/KPCC

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Reports of sexual harassment among workers for the City of Los Angeles have increased dramatically after the introduction of a new data collection system in December.

The city's personnel department received 26 reports of harassment in the two months after the new protocol was introduced in mid-December. In comparison, the department had received only 35 reports of harassment in a five-year stretch between 2013 and 2017.

Wendy Macy, general manager of personnel, told a City Council committee on Wednesday that her department had previously only seen "a small fraction" of the incidents that might have been taking place in the city.

"We have a more accurate picture of what’s going on in the city," said Macy, as she discussed a report on the latest sexual harassment data. "We don't see it as a spike; we see it as a very good thing. It allows us ... to keep track of what's going on."

In the wake of sexual harassment and assault allegations in recent months against powerful individuals in politics, media and business, a new policy went into effect on Dec. 15 requiring all city departments to report sexual harassment incidents within 48 hours of learning about them.

A working group that includes the mayor's office, City Attorney and several other departments has been reexamining city policies on sexual harassment in a process expected to take several months.

The work first began in late November when some council members raised concerns about problems with the current reporting system. At the time, Councilwoman Nury Martinez, one of just two females on the 15-member council, raised concerns that the city wasn't following through on reported incidents.

On Wednesday, Councilman Mitchell Englander voiced concerns about the need for additional information on the employees accused of harassment, including whether an employee was fired or reprimanded. "These aren’t numbers on a page. These are potentially victims," Englander said. "I think we need to look at it very carefully from that perspective."

Englander is among two sitting council members whose offices have been involved in sexual harassment settlements in recent years. City records show a case involving a staff member who accused Englander's former chief of staff of sexual harassment and settled for $75,000. Another case involving Councilman Jose Huizar settled privately in 2014, according to the Los Angeles Times.  

Documents previously obtained by KPCC through a documents request showed that reports of sexual harassment made to the city's personnel department had been declining in recent years. The city frequently received fewer than 10 reports per year.

Under the previous policy, city departments were not required to report incidents of sexual harassment to any central office, making the scope of sexual harassment problems among city workers impossible to assess.

During Wednesday's meeting, Councilman Paul Koretz asked Macy to report back on the progress of a new online system that will make it easier for employees to report harassment. Koretz and other members also urged the personnel department to reach out more actively to inform employees about the new procedures. They suggested sending out an email blast that would require read receipts for the entire city workforce. 

The new working group on sexual harassment will meet on Friday to discuss additional recommendations to improve the city's response to the issue. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had an incorrect headline saying the city received more sexual harassment claims in two months than it did in five years. In fact, it received nearly as many claims in that time period. KPCC regrets the error.