BOSTON — Interns working in legislative offices at the Statehouse are not covered by sexual harassment policies, which has emerged as a key issue for lawmakers seeking protections for accusers amid claims of unwanted sexual advances by men on Beacon Hill.

The House and Senate employ hundreds of interns, who generally work part-time for no money in exchange for college credits. Because they are not considered state employees, legislative interns are not covered by sexual harassment policies, don't receive any training on sexual harassment, and have no way to file a complaint, according to a review of the policies.

By contrast, interns working for the governor's office and other executive branch agencies are regarded as state employees and are covered under the state’s sexual harassment policies. So, too, are those working for the attorney general, auditor, secretary of state and other constitutional offices.

"Interns are not covered, but that's going to change," said Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, who leads a special committee reviewing the Senate's sexual harassment policies. "We want people to know that they are protected when they're in this building, whether they're a state employee or a volunteer."

Lovely said the committee, which has only met once, is considering a survey of employees and interns to get a handle on the scope of sexual harassment at the Statehouse. She said there’s a sense of urgency to make changes and expects to make recommendations before the end of the legislative session.

Rep. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, said she has heard from female interns who've been put in "uncomfortable situations.” She, too, supports protections for them.

"If the executive branch does this, there's no reason the Legislature shouldn't," said DiZoglio. "These interns should feel that they have the safest environment possible when they come into work. We have to do better."

Growing scrutiny

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which has the power to investigate sexual harassment claims, has seen a major uptick in complaints in recent months amid national attention to the issue. But legislative interns are barred from seeking the commission’s help.

"If interns come forward with a complaint we have to turn them away," said H. Alex Harrison, a commission spokesman. "We can only investigate within our jurisdiction."

The issue of sexual harassment and assault has come under growing scrutiny — and given rise to the “#MeToo” movement — amid allegations against prominent figures in media, business and entertainment.

Last year, a Boston Globe column detailed the experiences of a least a dozen women who said they’ve been sexually harassed or received inappropriate comments at the Statehouse. The report didn't identify the perpetrators.

In response, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, directed his legal team to review House policies on sexual harassment and recommend ways to improve them. He’s asked for a report by March.

DeLeo's chief of staff, Seth Gitell, said "while the current employee manual is silent as to interns, we fully expect that the role of interns will be addressed by counsel's review."

The Senate's review was initiated months before a scandal involving former Senate President Stanley Rosenberg forced the Amherst Democrat to step down from the post amid allegations that his husband sexually assaulted and harassed other men and bragged about his influence over Senate affairs.

Parallel investigations by Attorney General Maura Healey and the Senate Ethics Committee are looking into those allegations.

Other states reviewing policies

Nationally state legislatures are updating or reviewing codes of conduct, policies or procedures regarding sexual harassment. A report by the Pew Charitable Trust identified at least 18 state lawmakers across the country who’ve faced allegations of sexual misconduct, and either resigned or faced sanctions as a result.

In most statehouses, interns are covered by sexual harassment policies and must undergo training on handling such situations, just like other employees.

Legislatures in Colorado, Oregon and Wyoming define interns as employees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the state of Washington, the legislature's policy specifically seeks to limit interactions between adults and interns and legislative pages.

"Young people are looking to legislators and legislative staff to set high standards and be good role models," the Washington Legislature’s policy states. "With limited exceptions, there should be no business need for adults to be alone in non-public circumstances with youth staff, including having private communications within or outside of the legislative workplace."

In Connecticut, legislative interns aren't considered state employees but are protected under an extension of the sexual harassment policies of the 20 or more colleges they attend, according to Lisa Roy, director of the Connecticut Legislative Internship Program.

Roy said interns undergo sexual harassment training conducted by the University of Connecticut Women’s Center, and there are multiple avenues for filing complaints.

"Everyone is required to take the training, so everybody knows what is appropriate," she said.

The Connecticut General Assembly's sexual harassment policy was updated in 2013 following an incident in which a lawmaker told a 17-year-old intern he had a "live snake" for her under his desk. State Rep. Ernest Hewett, a New London Democrat, was stripped of his leadership responsibilities and didn’t win re-election.

Connecticut's legislative leaders are considering another update to the policy requiring lawmakers and staff to undergo annual sexual harassment training.

Spelling it out

In Massachusetts, the governor's office policy on harassment, put in place by the Baker administration in 2015, requires department heads to designate a sexual harassment officer to field and investigate complaints. Accusers are allowed to make complaints in writing or verbally.

The policy explains what is considered harassment — from unwanted touching to displaying suggestive photos to “discussion of one's sexual activities.” The policy notes that harassers could be bosses, coworkers or vendors doing business at the Statehouse.

Interns working for the governor's office or state agencies are expected to read and sign the policy as part of their orientation.

Tiffany Trzebiatowski, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts’ Isenberg School of Management, said government policies tend to lag the private sector’s, especially when it comes to interns.

"Most for-profit, private sector organizations cover interns under their sexual harassment policies," she said. "Whether they are effective is a different story."

Trzebiatowski said sexual harassment policies should clearly spell out what conduct is unacceptable, describe consequences for violations, and list multiple avenues for reporting allegations.

"A lot of times it could be the individual doing the harassing who is also receiving the complaint," she said. "Obviously that would be a problem."

It's also important to set up a process for lodging anonymous complaints by people who’ve witnessed harassment by others.

"Sexual harassment is all about the abuse of power," she said. "Because interns have a lower status, they tend to be the target of that abuse."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

 

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