In late 2017, as the Me Too movement unleashed a torrent of daily news and revelations, a group of California state leaders began to meet.
Harvey Weinstein was one thing. But how, they wanted to know, was the state of California dealing with these matters in its own workplaces?
"It's not enough that employers are explaining that they have zero tolerance, that they do training... That's not enough," said Marybel Batjer, the secretary of the Government Operations Agency and a participant in the group.
Batjer said it became obvious that "we need to pick up the hood and take a look inside."
And they did. This month, based on the group's advice, Gov. Jerry Brown’s cabinet secretary, Keely Martin Bosler, directed state agencies and departments to revise their approaches to harassment and discrimination cases.
Among the problems, identified in a Bee story last November, is the state's inability to readily track sexual harassment cases across departments.
The sheer size of the state's massive bureaucracy creates its own problems. In California's executive branch, with nearly 230,000 employees, there is little uniformity among departments in the handling of these cases, according to a new Bee investigation. Each state agency or department takes care of its own human resources matters. Each entity designates at least one Equal Employment Opportunity officer to deal with complaints and conduct internal investigations, with mixed results. Each agency figures out appropriate discipline, if any.
The working group seized upon both issues and, this week, the state will begin providing mandatory, three-day training sessions for EEO officers, covering sweeping topics right down to the nitty-gritty of writing reports. Batjer said that training and skill levels vary widely among EEO officers, and that some departments have simply closed investigations when accused perpetrators retired or moved on.
“If you just stop the investigation because one person left, you’re not thoroughly reviewing the environment,” she said. “There could be other things awry than that one person.”
The state also will develop a system to track harassment and discrimination complaints across departments to identify patterns and fix them, she said.
Similarly, state lawmakers are eyeing the tracking issue in a bill introduced this year by Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Chino. The bill would require each departments' EEO officers to annually report specific information about sexual harassment complaints – including settlement costs – to the California Department of Human Resources. In turn, Cal HR would compile the data and submit it annually to the Legislature, while also posting it online.
The bill's sponsors include state government's largest union, Service Employees International Union Local 1000.
Dorrie Steadman, a registered nurse at Donovan state prison in San Diego, told an Assembly committee last week that the mandatory reporting system would help identify patterns of abuse in state government, pinpoint workplace cultures that "foster inappropriate behavior" and assess gaps in training.
As a union steward for SEIU Local 1000, Steadman said that many members have complained to her over the years about sexual harassment.
"Sometimes I feel powerless because it doesn't appear that anyone is being held accountable," she said.
A Bee investigation published in January found that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was responsible for the highest total payouts for alleged sexual harassment in the last three fiscal years, with more than $15 million in settlement costs.
While the Legislature and the executive branch look for ways to clean house, the UC system has publicly announced its own changes.
Even before the nationwide “Me Too” movement erupted last year, University of California President Janet Napolitano detected a problem of her own.
From Berkeley to Merced to San Diego, each of the UC’s 10 campuses was handling sexual harassment and sexual violence cases differently, with very different outcomes.
That is changing. Under Napolitano’s direction, the UC adopted a system-wide model in 2016 to try to ensure that campuses handle cases fairly and consistently – for both the victims and the accused.
The shift by one of the world’s premier public universities has attracted outside interest and could help redefine how other systems approach these polarizing cases.
The UC system in particular faced public criticism in recent years for the handling of several high-profile cases – including sexual harassment accusations against Sujit Choudhry, the former dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law. The case, filed in 2016 by Choudhry’s executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell, settled for $1.7 million the following year. Sorrell raised numerous alarms about what she perceived as the lopsided handling of her complaints – requiring her to use accrued vacation and sick time, for instance, to avoid being around Choudhry.
At the time, the UC system had been on a difficult roll. The Bee's investigation published in January found that the university’s total sexual harassment payouts exceeded $3.7 million in the last three fiscal years, making it second only to Corrections during that period.
In 2016, UC issued its new system-wide policy and put into place a framework for investigations and sanctions in cases involving students. A similar framework was put into place the following year for harassment and violence cases pertaining to faculty and staff. Kathleen Salvaty, the former Title IX coordinator at UCLA, also was named last year to the new position of system-wide coordinator, reporting directly to Napolitano in the Oakland office.
“We’re one UC,” said Salvaty said in a recent interview with The Bee. “It didn’t seem fair that a UC Irvine student or employee would have a very different experience than a UC Davis student or employee. “We wanted to have the strongest process for all of our community members.”
Salvaty said it was not single case that triggered the system-wide approach, but a realization that discipline varied among the campuses, and that the “rights the parties enjoyed varied.”