Workplace harassment and discrimination claims cost the state of Oregon millions of dollars. They damage morale, hurt people’s lives and can cause serious disruptions in the workplace. Yet, state leaders offer little oversight into how different agencies investigate or track allegations, according to an audit released Wednesday morning.
Oregon was not immune from the #MeToo cultural reckoning that forced a closer look at the culture of sexual harassment and discrimination in state politics and workforces.
An investigation found substantial evidence of sexual harassment at the state Capitol, which resulted in a lawsuit and legal fees that cost the taxpayers about $1.6 million. Abuse at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility cost the state $500,000 in settlements. The Department of Corrections is currently facing multiple pending lawsuits for discrimination and harassment that could tally $12 million, according to the audit. And the Oregon Military Department paid close to $1 million due to claims of misspending and sexual harassment.
There is one state agency charged with creating and supporting a statewide human resource system; it’s known as the Department of Administrative Services or DAS. Many state agencies also have their own human resources teams that handle their own internal investigations.
But the Department of Administrative Services could be doing more and is missing an opportunity, the audit points out. By creating a statewide tracking system of investigations, the agency could better streamline the system for other departments and also offer crucial analysis.
“DAS could use investigation data to assess whether allegations are handled appropriately and to identify other potential root causes, statewide trends, and risks that require proactive mitigation,” auditors wrote.
The audit also notes since there is not sufficient oversight, state agencies are inconsistent in how they investigate claims, with different timelines, standards and procedures. In one instance, it took a state agency 39 business days to even begin looking into a workplace discrimination claim.
“Delays in acknowledging allegations and initiating investigations adds to the overall length of investigations and can negatively impact employees,” the audit states.
Investigations that drag are also not good for the state’s budget. From July 2011 to February 2020, the state paid $18 million to employees who were at home while under investigation. One agency had more than 655 employees who were on some combination of either unpaid disciplinary leave or duty station at home, costing the agency more than $6.15 million or almost $60,000 a month.
DAS also does not provide any training, which means some investigators receive little support to conduct the investigations.
“There are financial and organization risks associated with mishandling, or delays in, completing these investigations,” the audit reads. “There are also equity risks when some employees' allegations are investigated differently. Consistent training for all investigators can help mitigate some of these risks.”
The audit makes six recommendations, including; having DAS identify and document which agencies, boards and commissions it has responsibility for; work with agencies to create a tracking system for all discrimination and harassment allegations and investigations; analyze the data to identify risks and root causes; work with agencies to develop a training curriculum and develop guidelines for investigations that includes timeframes.
Agency leaders agreed with the recommendations.