California legislative staff members on Monday applauded the passage of a bill granting whistleblower protections to legislative staff members who say they are badly needed to ensure sexual misconduct and other misbehavior can be reported without fear of retaliation.
It passed the Assembly unanimously and was quickly signed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, taking effect immediately. The Senate passed it last week after stonewalling a similar measure for four years. Legislative staff members wearing black gathered in the Assembly gallery and balcony to watch the debate.
"You're not standing alone," Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens told them from the floor.
The bill by Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez received renewed attention last fall after nearly 150 women in California politics signed an open letter calling sexual harassment pervasive in the Capitol amid a national awakening on the topic. Two Assembly lawmakers have since resigned and a state senator is on suspension amid an investigation.
The bill's author told KPCC that the bill was resurrected by recent discussions of harassment in the workplace, including the #MeToo movement.
At a small rally outside the Capitol, staff members marked the bill's passage by blowing plastic whistles.
"We are long past the time when we step back and figure out what we need to do to make staff feel more comfortable coming forward if something does happen," said Nanette Farag, an Assembly Republican staff member who said she was assaulted in the Capitol more than a decade ago but never reported it.
Roleeda Statham, another Republican staff member, said it's unfortunate it look legislation to make positive change but that such a policy in Sacramento can set the agenda for broader cultural change.
"This is where it starts," she said.
The measure's passage comes after legislative leaders on Friday released 11 years' worth of documents outlining sexual misconduct investigations and discipline against lawmakers and staff. Those documents revealed complaints against four sitting lawmakers for behavior ranging from unwanted touching to crude conversations about sex and about a half dozen complaints against staff members. Eight allegations of sexual harassment are pending before the Assembly, according to additional documents.
But critics said the documents do not illustrate the full universe of sexual harassment and misconduct at the Capitol because they did not include complaints that were not investigated. They also said legislative staff members often do not report harassment or misconduct because they fear retaliation. Legislative employees are at-will employees who are currently not protected by whistleblower protections given to other state employees.
The Legislature's sexual harassment policies prohibit retaliation, but Assembly lawmakers argued whistleblower protections need to be enshrined in law.
"We owe an apology to the staff; they have long deserved this protection," said Republican Assemblywoman Catharine Baker. "They work hard every day to make sure we look good, we do better and we succeed in representing our districts. Every one of us should have their backs — this institution should have had their backs long ago."
This story has been updated.