I’ve worked for the City of Philadelphia for nearly a decade. I’ve heard firsthand accounts from employees about the sexual misconduct they experienced, but worse, I’ve heard about their experience reporting what happened to them. As an elected leader, I’m now in a position of power to address this all too common, all too troubling problem.
Last year, my office conducted a performance audit of the city’s sexual misconduct policies, procedures, and payouts. When the audit was released in July, I was hopeful. The Kenney administration took immediate steps to address some of the findings, namely the shortcomings in sexual harassment training and governing policy. Mayor Kenney and his team also committed to centralizing the reporting process over the coming months and to working toward a disciplinary schedule for sexual misconduct — our most important recommendations.
Months later, I’m disappointed at the progress the administration has made on these two recommendations. It has completely neglected a disciplinary schedule, and the changes it has made toward centralization fall woefully short.
A centralized process would mean that a single office, independent from all other departments, would be charged with accepting and documenting sexual misconduct allegations, investigating those allegations, compiling a report with a finding about the claim, and ensuring appropriate discipline was administered. Approaching sexual misconduct reports this way creates a safer work environment. It ensures the investigator is reliable and unbiased and sets a consistent standard for investigations and discipline. This would give the person making the complaint a better reporting experience and has the potential to result in better investigations and resolutions of claims, overall.
But centralization isn’t what the administration is doing. The administration has charged the Employee Relations Unit (ERU) in the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations as the central unit for overseeing sexual misconduct complaints. In reality, the ERU is a monitoring body.
Complaints can still be filed within an employee’s department. When that happens, the department is supposed to document the complaint and report it to the ERU. Our audit found that departments didn’t always document the complaints it received. And, our phone line showed that even though employees believed they were making a complaint, their incidents weren’t always documented.
Employees also can make complaints directly to the ERU. Regardless of whether a complaint is filed with an employee’s department or with the ERU, the ERU determines who will conduct the investigation. It’s possible that complaints could be sent back to the victim’s department for investigation. In these instances, the employee charged with investigating the case may report up to or have a long-standing relationship with the victim or the individual accused of misconduct, making an unbiased investigation difficult if not impossible.
There are other potential issues, too, from the effective training of departmental staff to investigate allegations to what happens when the ERU disagrees with a department’s investigation, and more.
To put it simply, the city hasn’t done enough to protect its workers from sexual misconduct or to support them if they are a victim. And there is a real cost to it — a loss of productivity and an increased financial liability. Our audit found that over a five-year period, the city had paid at least $2.2 million of taxpayer money for sexual misconduct cases, which doesn’t include the $127,500 payout for a claim against Sheriff Jewell Williams in January.
The question now is whether the city is willing to take the necessary steps to do better. In 2018, the #MeToo movement let sexual harassment victims speak out about their experiences and reclaim their power. If the movement is going to have a long-term impact, our institutions, including Philadelphia city government, must enact larger reforms to create a safe work environment for everyone.