Minnesota representatives spent much of the second day of the legislative session Wednesday sequestered behind closed doors, doing what some had not done for more than a decade: sexual harassment training.
Lawmakers’ mixed responses as they left the training indicated efforts to improve sexual harassment policies this year could be fraught. Some House members called it a good first step after two male lawmakers resigned last year following harassment allegations, while others said they were frustrated by the presentation and felt the victims’ perspective was not sufficiently addressed.
“It’s a starting point,” said House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, who will lead a new House subcommittee that will recommend sexual harassment policy changes.
Peppin said the employment attorney who led the training highlighted the House’s policy and talked about why people harass and why victims do not always report it. The attorney — who Peppin said was selected by nonpartisan House human resources staff — had a relatively short time to address sexual harassment. But it’s not the last time an employment expert will talk about the issue with lawmakers this year, Peppin said.
Some House members said it wasn’t enough. Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, who left the meeting in tears, declined to comment on why. Before the meeting started, she had expressed concerns about legislators’ approach to sexual harassment this session.
“We’ve tried to go with a bad-apple-type approach to so many issues when it actually is a massive change that needs to happen,” Maye Quade said shortly before the training.
Maye Quade was one of the women who reported sexual harassment by former DFL Sen. Dan Schoen. He and former Republican Rep. Tony Cornish announced their resignations on the same day last November.
Maye Quade and another DFL lawmaker, Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn of Roseville, have pushed for months for an independent sexual harassment task force, which they said would bring in outside perspectives to help find solutions. Becker-Finn said she would have liked a counterpoint to what employment law defense attorney Linda Holstein presented Wednesday, and she also felt some of her colleagues were not taking it seriously.
“It was clearly a training given through the lens of somebody who works to defend harassers,” said Becker-Finn, who is a domestic violence prosecutor. “It didn’t reflect, I think, the point of view of those who have to deal with harassment.”
Both Maye Quade and Becker-Finn said they have heard story after story about sexual harassment from women who work, or have worked, at the Capitol.
Peppin said the House subcommittee will hear from the public and outside groups, such as members of the National Conference of State Legislatures. She said a nonprofit or other group could still create a task force.
The subcommittee, which will meet for the first time Monday, plans to use public input and experts’ advice to improve policies. Meanwhile, human resources and legal staff in the Senate have begun reviewing sexual harassment policies that have not been updated since the 1990s.
Senators also have been participating in sexual harassment training. Some attended training at the end of last year, and another session is scheduled for Thursday morning. It will be led by Therese Pautz from NeuVest, a company that does workplace investigations.
Senators and all legislative staff are required to go through sexual harassment training every five years. But House members have only had a brief training when they first take office, and this is the first time representatives could remember that all 134 members gathered for such a training.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he threatened to remove representatives’ committee assignments if they failed to show up. The day started with implicit-bias training by deepSEE Consulting, and the afternoon session involved harassment and discrimination training.
“We’re taking this incredibly seriously, because we think that kind of behavior has no place at the Minnesota State Capitol,” Daudt said.
The Legislature needs to take a three-pronged approach to address harassment, said House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. She said lawmakers need to make sure legislators and staff know what’s not allowed and the process to file complaints, and that others who work at or visit the Capitol — including lobbyists, media and the public — have an accessible way to register complaints. The Legislature also needs to look beyond the Capitol walls, she said.
“We have to look at all of the workplaces in Minnesota and we have to ask ourselves whether the current laws are doing what they need to do to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace,” Hortman said. “And I would posit that they are not strong enough right now and they do not provide a means for redress for people in workplaces all across the state.”
Daudt said he is open to a conversation about broader workplace legislation, noting that all Minnesotans should have a workplace that is “safe and comfortable.”