The Minnesota Senate made more than a dozen changes to its harassment and discrimination policy last week, as the institution continues to grapple with allegations of sexual harassment and how best to handle them.
The changes, adopted by the Senate Rules Committee on Thursday, follow an independent investigation into allegations from a former Senate DFL aide who said she was harassed by a former DFL staffer in the House during their work at the Capitol. The harassment stretched into work on the campaign trail, she said.
The case highlighted the challenge facing the Legislature in protecting staffers, third parties and legislators from harassment in a part-time workplace, one where many employees transition to campaigning in election years. Senate members from both sides of the aisle had called for a deeper look into whether policies updated several years ago were being followed.
"We have some unique challenges, we are a unique group with unique circumstances," said Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, who was part of a working group of senators that evaluated the chamber's policy. "I think creating a policy that is fair and thorough has its own set of challenges, but I think we are getting there."
The changes, which came about after months of internal discussions, include required steps for human resources to take following a complaint and yearly training for contact people in reporting discrimination or harassment. Much of the work clarified language in the current policy to encourage reporting of harassment and discrimination.
But Senate Democrats pushed to remove the right to a hearing in cases of sexual harassment or discrimination, which they said could deter a person from reporting out of fear of being dragged through a public process.
"That process can be intimidating, both for someone to have to take on, but also financially, because you are required to get your own private attorney," said Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville. "They would have to then pay for a private attorney simply to have [human resources] take their complaint seriously."
Republicans in the majority favored keeping the hearing requirement in place, arguing the person being accused of harassment is entitled to due process. Democrats argued an investigation and appeal process in the policy already provides enough protection for the accused.
"An allegation of that type could literally be a career-ending allegation," said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. "The working group has done a good job of balancing the right of privacy and the right of due process."
Democrats said their hands were tied by their inability to see the investigative report or question the individual who conducted the investigation. Both sides ultimately agreed to adopt the recommendations while allowing the working group to continue meeting until Aug. 15. The group could come back at that time with more recommended changes.