SACRAMENTO (AP) — The California Assembly on Monday unanimously passed 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 will take effect immediately if signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. The Senate passed it last week after stonewalling a similar measure for four years. Legislative staff members donning black gathered in the Assembly gallery and balcony to watch the debate and planned to rally outside the Capitol to support the bill’s passage.
“You’re not standing alone,” Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens told them from the floor.
The measure 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 and lawmakers say people often do not support 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.”
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.