The number of known cases of sexual harassment committed by employees in Iowa’s executive branch spiked last year after responsibility for conducting investigations of those complaints was shifted to a central agency.
Department of Administrative Services spokeswoman Tami Wiencek said the agency concluded there were 10 founded complaints of sexual harassment in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30.
DAS officials told lawmakers earlier this year that it knew of only three founded sexual harassment complaints in the prior three fiscal years combined.
The Department of Administrative Services now has responsibility for the investigation of all sexual harassment complaints involving the executive branch’s roughly 16,000 full-time employees. Prior to the change last year, the DAS only assisted in investigations if other agencies requested help.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a statement last Wednesday in which she commented, “I believe the policy is working, but the data also shows there’s more work to do; and we should always see how we can do better.”
The recent investigations confirmed allegations of unwanted touching of co-workers, sexual comments and jokes and other inappropriate behaviors. A number of state employees, including workers from the Department of Transportation, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Revenue, were dismissed as a result of those investigations.
Multimillion-dollar settlements of earlier cases prompted calls for the state to overhaul its procedures for handling complaints and investigations.
Earlier this year, the state paid $4.15 million to two women who had been sexually harassed by Dave Jamison, then the director of the Iowa Finance Authority.
As important as the payment was the fact that the investigation found that for years nobody reported his behavior, in part because it was unclear who would investigate an agency director.
The case was politically sensitive for Reynolds, a longtime friend of Jamison. To her credit, Reynolds fired Jamison after one of the two women brought her complaint to the governor’s office.
In the wake of the Jamison issue, Reynolds pursued a zero-tolerance approach to workplace sexual harassment. The new rules make it clear that supervisors who are aware of sexual misconduct but don’t report it can also be fired.
Details of complaints and investigations are confidential under the rules to protect the privacy of complainants. Despite that effort, some of the cases have become public after fired employees appealed their terminations to the Public Employment Relations Board. That needs to change.
Despite the state’s efforts, there is no way of knowing how many allegations of sexual harassment are not being reported out of fear of reprisal or embarrassment. Some studies have suggested that as many as 80% or more of women in the workplace have experienced some form of sexual harassment, and only a small percentage actually report it.
While state officials are working to reverse that trend — and are seeing some success as a result of those efforts — we still have a long ways to go.