Spurred by the #MeToo movement, the City Council voted in favor of an ordinance that will give Seattle residents more time to file complaints with the city’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
OCR investigates discrimination allegations, including sexual harassment cases, related to employment, public accommodations, housing, and contracting.
Currently, for most cases, residents have 180 days from the time of an incident to file complaints with OCR. The exception is housing discrimination, in which people get one year.
Under the new ordinance, which passed unanimously, people alleging employment and contracting discrimination will have one year and six months to file a complaint. Public accommodations and housing complainants get a year. Each new statute of limitations is half the time individual gets to file civil discrimination cases in court.
The ordinance also edits Seattle’s human rights code to explicitly call sexual and racial harassment forms of discrimination. Harassment was already covered under the city’s discrimination code, but it was not spelled out.
The ordinance comes as all levels of governments are reviewing sexual harassment policies amid the #MeToo movement. One of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s first actions in office was to require city departments to provide 30-day notice when settling lawsuits, high-level grievances, and investigations into harassment. During the most recent legislative session, Washington lawmakers banned nondisclosure agreements related to sexual harassment complaints and banned work contractors requiring employees to waive the right to file sexual harassment complaints.
Seattle’s Office of Civil rights is one of few non-judicial options for local residents alleging discrimination. Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries and the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission both accept discrimination complaints within 180 days and 300 days, respectively.
Some attorneys and advocates say OCR’s original six-month time limit just wasn’t enough. Council member Lisa Herbold, who sponsored the ordinance, said today that she was inspired to look at the statute of limitations after a university student who alleged harassment reached out to her office.
"She had been bounced around from place to place, and when she finally was referred to the Office of Civil Rights, the current 180-day statute of limitations had already expired," Herbold said. "She reached out to my office, not to ask for help herself, but to ask for help in changing the conditions that would make it hard for other people in her situation in the future."
Denise Diskin, a civil rights attorney, told The Stranger in January that several factors can dissuade a person from coming forward with a harassment complaint.
"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.”
During the public comment session of today's meeting, Denise Krownbell, an 18-year employee of Seattle City Light and a member of the Seattle Silence Breakers, spoke in favor of the legislation.
OCR received 1,004 incident reports in 2017, according to spokesperson Roberto Bonaccorso. Investigators processed 186 of those cases.
The office runs on a budget of a little more than $5 million and employs 28 full-time staffers, including six investigators.