In late December, Mayor Jenny Durkan said she wants to update Seattle’s internal process for reporting sexual harassment in the workplace. She's taken one concrete step so far, requiring city departments to provide 30-day notice when settling lawsuits, high-level grievances and investigations related to harassment.
Now, council member Lisa Herbold is putting sexual harassment on her agenda. Herbold wants to take a close look at the statute of limitations for reporting workplace harassment to the city’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Currently, employees in Seattle get 180 days from the date of an alleged incident to file a complaint with the office, which mediates disputes outside a courtroom setting. Washington's Human Rights Commission, the state-level agency that investigates sexual harassment complaints, also gives 180 days.
In a January 12 letter to Mayor Durkan, Herbold said she intends to work with OCR to bring the statute of limitations “into parity” with state and federal best practices.
“We understand that it often takes time for people to come forward because of shame, fear, reprisals, denial, history of prior sexual violence, and lack of information about what constitutes sexual harassment and how to report it,” Herbold wrote in her letter.
Herbold, who chairs the committee on Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development and Arts, said she hopes to have legislation ready within two month.
Not every city has an office with staff dedicated to investigating harassment and discrimination, leaving those duties to the state (Washington State has the Human Rights Commission, which gives 180 days). Still, some jurisdictions give more time to file sexual harassment complaints than Seattle.
California and New York, for example, give employees one year to report sexual harassment complaints. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal office that investigates sexual harassment complaints, typically gives 300 days for people in Seattle to file such reports.
Denise Diskin, a local attorney who takes on sexual harassment cases, said she has had clients who came to her more than 180 days after their alleged harassment occurred. She says a number of factors can dissuade a person from moving forward with a complaint. For instance, an employee might rely on their company’s own human resources department to deal with a harasser, only to find that nothing happens.
"The power dynamics in the workplace can take away from people’s ability to own their experience. They might not believe they can do anything about it,” Diskin said. "We have to allow survivors time to deal with that. I don’t think six months is enough.”
Herbold writes in her letter that she spoke with a college student who alleged an incident of sexual harassment who said she was “bounced around from agency to agency and system to system.” When the student was finally referred to OCR, the 180 days had already passed.
“In reaching out to my office, this young woman’s request was not to ask for anything for herself but to ensure that, in the future, people who experience sexual harassment do not face the same barriers that she did,” Herbold wrote.
Herbold said over the phone that, on top of the statute of limitations, she would like to see more clarity in the municipal code's with regard to sexual harassment. Currently, city laws don't include a definition for sexual harassment. Such cases would fall under "malicious harassment."
The council member also noted in her letter that the state legislature is currently considering a bill that would remove the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes. Herbold is also asking the mayor to reevaluate sexual harassment training, as studies have found that trainings are typically ineffective and focused on protecting employers from lawsuits. Herbold suggests placing a bigger emphasis on bystander training for city employees.