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Leading Georgia Lawmakers Endorse Overhaul Of Sexual Harassment Policy

“I certainly, from the very beginning, wanted to hold our Georgia General Assembly, the workforce environment here, to as high a standard as anywhere in the country, and in the state, and I believe this accomplishes that,” said Jan Jones, Republican House speaker pro tem and chair of the special committee recommending rewrites to the assembly’s employee handbook that would extend sexual harassment protections.
Credit John Bazemore / Associated Press file
Audio version of this story here.

A special committee including six of the state’s top lawmakers recommended rewrites Wednesday to the Georgia General Assembly’s employee handbook that would extend sexual harassment protections to lobbyists as well as the general public, institute mandatory training and create new avenues for filing official complaints.

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Implementation of the recommendations, which still need final approval, requires that the state House and Senate change their internal rules. The recommendations related to lobbyists and the general public likely require new laws, according to Jan Jones, Republican House speaker pro tem and chair of the committee.

“I certainly, from the very beginning, wanted to hold our Georgia General Assembly, the workforce environment here, to as high a standard as anywhere in the country, and in the state, and I believe this accomplishes that,” Jones said.

The Georgia Legislature has grappled with how to revise its harassment policy following accusations of sexual misconduct by politicians in Washington, D.C., and at state capitols around the country.

Recently in Georgia, substantiated allegations of sexual harassment have not been made public, but WABE has reported on multiple women who said they experienced harassment and fear speaking publically about the incidents.

In December, Republican House Speaker David Ralston appointed a special subcommittee of legislative leaders, including five men and one woman, to review the Georgia Legislature’s harassment policy. Labor and employment lawyer Rashwanda Pinchback Dixon was retained to help.

On a normal day at the Capitol during the legislative session, hundreds of lobbyists and members of the public crowd the halls.

Jones said those people need protections from sexual harassment, too, not just lawmakers and their staff.

“We want to create a safe and respectful workplace environment, and they are a part of our workplace environment,” Jones said. “This policy covers whomever regularly does business in the legislative arena.”

Right now, clerks in the state House and state Senate are the only employees prepared to receive complaints. The new policy outlined in the employee handbook would add the Legislative Fiscal Office and the chairs of ethics committees in the state House and state Senate to that list.

Other updates to the handbook include mandatory training for lawmakers every two years and one-time training for staff. Lobbyists would receive a copy of the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy when they register with the state Ethics Commission.

Incidents inside and outside the state Capitol would be covered in the revised handbook, and the definition of sexual harassment would be expanded to include online harassment — for example, “sexually suggestive postings on any social media platform.”

Both Republicans and Democrats support the policy changes, although some Democrats have also called for an annual, anonymous survey to help determine how much harassment is happening at the Capitol.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver co-chairs a Democratic committee on sexual harassment policy. She said policing people like lobbyists, who aren’t state employees, could be a challenge and is a point lawmakers still need to work out.

“We in Georgia recognize that this is a national issue,” Oliver said. “It’s an issue where we’re studying it thoughtfully, I hope, and in-depth, I hope, and bringing forward agreements and policies and changes in that law and rules that will protect victims of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in our state Capitol.”