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LA County employee complaints rise in wake of attention to sexual harassment charges

Los Angeles County Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration
Los Angeles County Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration
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Los Angeles County has seen an upswing in the number of sexual harassment complaints filed by its workers recently as daily headlines draw attention to the high-profile issue.

In the wake of sexual harassment charges directed at celebrities and politicians around the country, local municipalities are also coming under the spotlight, with questions raised about whether employees know their rights and are adequately protected.

The Los Angeles City Council took steps this week to review city policies and will consider a motion to create a sexual harassment hotline for workers to report incidents.

As one of the biggest local government entities in the country, Los Angeles County employs about 110,000 people with an annual budget of about $30 billion. Since 2011, the county has received about 27,000 workplace complaints from its employees, covering a range of allegations, including age and sexual orientation discrimination. 

Sexual harassment is among the top complaint categories. Since July, more than 3,000 complaints of alleged sexual harassment and other problems like race discrimination and inappropriate conduct have been submitted to the county.

Vickey Bane, the executive director of the county’s Equity Oversight Panel, said the total number of complaints has been on an uptrend for several years. But since recent high-profile sexual allegations have surfaced, her department has seen an increase in the filing of sexual harassment complaints.  

The county has a "policy of equity" adopted in 2011 that includes worker protections from sexual harassment. County Counsel Mary Wickham said the new program implementing the policy has cut employment litigation costs in half, from about $30 million to $15 million. 

"There's no barrier to filing a complaint," Wickham said. 

The county would not immediately provide details about the complaints filed, including whether any top staff were the subject of any allegations. "That's a privileged conversation," Wickham said. "I'll say this: the entire county workforce is subject  to our process, including the supervisors."

Bane said the higher number of complaints the county is seeing is a good thing, reflecting that managers understand they’re required to report allegations and that staff feel comfortable coming forward.

"It shows that people are embracing, or employees are embracing the process, that they feel they have a place they can go," she said. Bane anticipates the number of overall complaints for the fiscal year will double by summertime to around 6,000.

Timothy Davis, an employment law attorney with Burke, Williams & Sorensen who has worked with public agencies in the state, said while California’s laws protecting workers from sexual harassment and other discrimination have long been clear, the law needs to be followed now more than ever.

"What it may mean for some agencies is that vigilance and compliance might be needed to be increased," Davis said.

City of L.A. moves to review policies

The L.A. City Council, meanwhile, plans to take up a motion to review the city’s sexual harassment policies. It was introduced quietly on Nov. 8 without public discussion by City Councilman Paul Krekorian and was seconded by City Councilwoman Nury Martinez.

Krekorian is calling for the city’s Personnel Department to reexamine the current policies and ensure that they are “victim friendly.” He asked that the department report back with any recommendations for changes.

Krekorian wants to know whether it would be feasible to create a website and hotline for sexual harassment and assault complaints. He is also requesting a report on the number of complaints filed within the last five years.

The motion for a review of city policies was not prompted by any known internal allegations, according to a spokesman for Krekorian.

Further action by the City Council is expected before the end of the year.

Council President Herb Wesson said he wants to ensure that city employees are comfortable coming forward when they need to make a report of sexual harassment.

“It’s moments like this that provide us with opportunities to make progress and to change things,” he said.

Wesson says no one has complained to him about cases of harassment and he adds he hasn’t heard of any complaints against council members.

“That’s part of what this process is ... if there’s something that’s inappropriate, we want to know about it. We will not sweep it under the rug. We will try to deal with it,” he said.