JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley says his office will review discrimination and harassment policies across state government and provide suggestions for best practices.
The move comes as Missouri has faced multiple sexual harassment scandals in recent years, from legislative interns to female prison guards. In 2017, as the #metoo movement got going, the state paid about $8.1 million to employees harassed by supervisors.
“The amount of taxpayer money spent in one year on claims of harassment and discrimination illustrates that we have a serious problem in at least some parts of our state government,” Hawley said at a news conference Tuesday. “The news from across the country these past few months has demonstrated a desperate need for meaningful change in the workplace.”
Hawley’s office is partnering with the Women’s Foundation, a Kansas City-based nonprofit that focuses on promoting equality for women, to conduct the review.
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“Every instance of sexual harassment is a barrier to women’s political and professional advancement,” said Wendy Doyle, the president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation.
After the review, Hawley said, his office will suggest “best practices” for government agencies to follow. In general, policies should clearly define harassment, provide ways to complain anonymously and prevent retaliation against those who speak out, Hawley said Tuesday.
Last week, Hawley, along with every other state attorney general, signed his name to a letter urging Congress to outlaw arbitration in sexual harassment cases. Arbitration is a private justice system with no appeals process.
Legislation pending in the Missouri House seeks to enforce arbitration agreements during employment disputes. On Tuesday, Hawley said the bill should have an exemption for sexual harassment claims, but he wouldn’t commit to exemptions for other types of cases, such as racial discrimination.
“I’m not necessarily advocating we don’t have exceptions for other things,” Hawley said.
He also said arbitration could be a useful tool in some circumstances.
“If everyone agrees to enter into arbitration, that’s fine,” Hawley said. “But forced arbitration for claims of harassment or discrimination, particularly forced and secret arbitration, I think is just really bad policy.”
Missouri’s state government has been rocked by sexual harassment scandals in recent years.
In May 2015, former House Speaker John Diehl, a Republican, resigned after sending sexually charged messages to a 19-year-old intern. Then, Sen. Paul LeVota, a Democrat, resigned after multiple interns alleged he sexually harassed them. House lawmakers later expanded the list of people required to report sexual harassment complaints.
There have also been allegations of sexual misconduct between lawmakers. Rep. Cora Faith Walker, D-Ferguson, has alleged that Rep. Steven Roberts Jr., D-St. Louis, sexually assaulted her. And Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, accused Rep. Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, of touching her inappropriately.
On top of that, the Missouri Department of Corrections has paid out millions to female guards who claimed they were harassed on the job.