State agencies have received 135 substantiated complaints of sexual harassment over the past six years, and Minnesota has paid out $709,500 in settlements for seven sexual harassment cases during that time.
Minnesota Management and Budget released details Friday of harassment in the state government’s executive branch, along with a report recommending numerous changes to how the state handles sexual harassment.
An independent office is needed to receive reports of sexual harassment, investigate and enforce government policies, the report said. The report’s recommendations also included studying the creation of an external hot line for reporting sexual harassment, adding guidelines for people who witness others being harassed and expanding training on sexual harassment.
“We realize things have got to change,” Management and Budget Director Myron Frans said. “We don’t want anyone to experience sexual harassment in our agencies. We don’t want anyone to experience that. And if the number is zero, then we’ll be happy.”
About 56 percent of the state’s workforce has received sexual harassment training, Frans said, and he wants to reach 100 percent.
The state has already started to work on some of the recommended changes, Frans said, with training as the top priority. Over the next several months the state will train employees who will in turn conduct the training for other staff, he said.
The report and review of complaints focused on the executive branch, which includes 23 agencies with about 33,200 employees. But it suggests other branches of the state government could benefit from the findings. The Legislature is expected to look into policy changes during the upcoming session.
Some legislators and supporters rallied Friday at the Capitol to demand the immediate creation of a sexual harassment task force.
Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, said Friday’s report is a great starting point but it would not apply to legislators, their staff, judicial branch employees or political campaign staff.
“I don’t want it just to exist for the executive branch,” said Maye Quade, one of a few women whose reports of sexual harassment led to the resignations of state Sen. Dan Schoen and Rep. Tony Cornish last November. She’d like to see an independent task force that would identify gaps in policies and training and should include external experts and a sexual assault survivor, she said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a statement that he thinks the Senate’s legal counsel and human resources department could come up with recommendations more quickly than a task force. He said he asked those staffers to work on reviewing and updating the Senate’s sexual harassment policy.
Consistent handling of cases
The state’s many agencies have a siloed approach to harassment complaints, Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said. Minnesota needs to make sure complaints and discipline are handled consistently across all agencies, she said.
The independent office would be responsible for ensuring complaints are handled faster, adding stronger protections against sexual harassment and more consistent consequences, Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement.
He said he would propose legislation this session to establish the administrative body. The report recommended the state hire and retain more diverse managers and improve the retention of women in leadership. It states that 80 percent of employees who report sexual harassment will leave their work situation within two years, no matter the outcome of the complaint.
“These findings instruct that we must do even more to improve the quality of the state’s workplaces and to ensure that sexual harassment violations are treated consistently across all agencies,” Dayton said of the report.
The state put out the report at the same time it released data that the Star Tribune requested in November on settlements, payouts and disciplinary actions related to sexual harassment.
The data included in the report show 51 percent of the 266 complaints of sexual harassment received from 2012 to 2017 were substantiated; 37 percent were unsubstantiated.
The bulk of the 135 substantiated complaints were resolved outside court. But in some cases, victims sued.
In the single largest payout, the state paid $180,000 to a Crystal woman who worked as a janitor at the Capitol. The woman, Rebecca Zimmerman, said a male co-worker stalked, chased and berated her — even breaking into her home at one point — forcing her to file a restraining order against him. Her complaints fell on deaf ears, she said.
“I felt scared, working alone and getting off work at midnight,” Zimmerman said in a statement to the Star Tribune. “I did not feel I had anyone to turn to. I was told that the harasser had a map to my house.”
In another case, the male managers of a female Stillwater corrections officer routinely discussed their sex lives, made crude sexual gestures and kept a large collection of pornography, labeling one binder of pictures “Staff Training Manual.”
Daniel Leland, the woman’s lawyer, said it was the most egregious substantiated case of workplace sexual harassment he had ever seen. The cost to taxpayers: $120,000.
The Department of Corrections received 73 complaints, the most of any agency during those six years. Piper’s department — the state’s largest agency — received 45 complaints, the second most.
Celeste Culberth, the lawyer for Zimmerman, said there are plenty of reasons some women choose not to go to court — beyond the fact that many victims simply are not believed. The statute of limitations for sexual harassment under the Minnesota Human Rights Act is one year. It can take victims more than a year to get the courage to come forward, she said.
Also, Minnesota has adopted a stringent federal standard on workplace sexual harassment that says the harassment must be “severe or pervasive” to be actionable, she said. Many cases are dismissed before a jury ever hears the claim, Culberth said. She said the federal standard needs to be adjusted to community expectations.
“We have a real disconnect,” Culberth said.