Pennsylvania Capitol Building. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).
By Colleen Kennedy
It is a deeply painful experience to feel like a political issue rather than a person, a talking point rather than a human being deserving of respect.
For millions of Pennsylvanians, this is an everyday experience. From the daily genocidal headlines and legislation calling for the eradication of transgender and gender-nonconforming people, to the criminalization of entire communities, to the constant perpetuation of rape culture and racism and ableism in every atom of our public culture, some of us are being attacked with it every moment of every day.
All of us are breathing it in like a gaseous carcinogen, poisoning our thoughts and condemning our lives to collective inaction.
The gears of progress grind to a halt as all of these ugly forces perpetuate themselves in the very halls where legislation is drafted and considered. Our refusal to deal with this issue in full is condemning future generations and today’s workers to continued acts of abuse.
I am a survivor of abuse at work, multiple times over, writing to ask all of us to reach higher and be stronger.
This column is for the Pennsylvania Republican House members, the Democratic House members, the Pennsylvania Senate, Gov. Josh Shapiro, and advocacy groups alike, all pontificating on the policy solutions to problems that have existed as long as women and femmes (and people of other historically marginalized identities) have been permitted to enter the workplace.
In some ways, actions taken last week were a huge step forward, but in so many ways, we have generations of work to get done on this issue and no time to waste.
These new rules passed through the Pennsylvania House of Representatives do not fully protect victims of sexual harassment and other forms of abuse, and we need to get this right, for every current and future survivor. One day, maybe the title of survivor can be retired.
We have no ban of taxpayer funded nondisclosure agreements through these rules. We have just agreed to blackout periods close to elections for reporting HR issues that are protected rights under federal law. These are rules, not legislation passed into law. A new term of House members means a new group of people voting on what their rules will be, and that could theoretically happen mid-investigation, impacting the outcome.
We have just given a group of internally appointed elected officials who are not trained judges the power to subpoena people, including survivors of abuse.
We have just written a blank check, codified in these rules, for legal counsel whose client is not the public, but rather, the very elected bodies that have abuse in their halls.
We just approved rules that require a survivor of abuse to state their complaint on the record and under oath under penalty of perjury, a standard practice absolutely not demanded of workers or civilians in any other field.
We have approved rules that “ban retaliation”, but don’t effectively define, even as an inconclusive list, what retaliation looks like in practice. We just passed rules that do nothing to close Pennsylvania’s gaping legal loophole that allows men credibly accused of sexual misconduct to sue their accuser and anyone who publicly stands in solidarity with them.
These rules go back only five years, and limit allegations generally to activities relating to a state representative or PA House staffer’s “official duties.”
As a person whose difficult experiences happened within the five-year window, but who was victimized by a person before they were elected (from my talents), I don’t know that I feel comfortable participating in any investigation. I say this as a person who has had to be fearless in these systems many times over.
These are just some of my concerns after reading over the document over the last few days, and I will surely uncover more concerns as I continue to process this complex information.
These rules do not exist in the Pennsylvania Senate, where I personally experienced a biased, ham-fisted investigation of sexual harassment allegations in the workplace a few years back.
So where do we go from here?
Well, to start, we should deeply appreciate the folks at SEIU and Andi Perez for getting as far as we have come, because this ongoing conversation really matters, and it was effectively only being heard by a small handful of people in short bursts of time until this major labor union used their political capital for an amazing cause. Thank you Andi and thank you SEIU members for your solidarity and leadership.
We should acknowledge the hypocritical political theater playing out before everyone’s eyes, and properly understand the motivations of the people with seats at the table. The Republican Party was in charge of both the state House and state Senate during much of the harassment playing out in the news, and the fact that a political party can be in the majority, but then defer workplace violations as the baggage of the opposing party, is exactly the problem.
Our bodies, our voices, our talents, our trauma, are not political toys to be tossed back and forth between bullies in the school yard, to be squeezed from us into soulless, craven essays on partisan blogs and for floor speeches.
Only in the realm of politics and a few other cruel industries involving undocumented workers and child labor, are federal laws around gender and racial discrimination and retaliation treated as something not guaranteed, as simply an aspiration for “some day”.
As communications staffers for both parties draft tweets and posts and press releases cheering on their party in unfactual ways, with side-eye emojis quoting acts of abuse against human beings, I want you to remember what this issue is all about. People you voted into office are complicit in the abuse of our friends and neighbors, and their complicit colleagues are absolutely gleeful about it.
When Republicans such as Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, draft footnote-laden letters claiming their party has “done right” on this issue, know that their provided example of accountability reportedly gets to enjoy his legislative pension, lifetime health benefits, and second career.
When Democratic leaders celebrate their new rules and clench their fists in preparation to call for the resignation of one of their own, know that more than a few of them absolutely knew this was going on, and I am willing to state that under oath.
We need an independent watchdog, free of relationship with any political body, to inform the public in aggregate of the scale of this problem and the impact of proposed solutions.
We have an auditor general to watch over every penny. What about an independent authority to protect our most precious resource of all, our people?
To start, the General Assembly and Governor Shapiro should request the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and its state counterpart, the Pennsylvnaia Human Relations Commission, to prioritize the Pennsylvania General Assembly as a frequent violator of state and federal employment law, and open its doors to every available intervention.
Pennsylvanians deserve to know if their tax dollars are being spent to silence or intimidate victims of harassment, sexual assault, economic and psychological abuse, and retaliation.
They deserve to know if their elected leaders are treating their public service like a frat party, a KKK rally, or the highest honor one could carry: representative democracy. We deserve to know that if someone is harmed in Pennsylvania’s most esteemed workplace, that the person can seek restorative justice that heals them, not political stunts that line the coffers of political campaigns.
We have to get this right, and the only way to do that is to make this work a constant commitment and center the experts on this issue, the survivors of abuse, as thought leaders around policy remedies.
There are no shortcuts, just a decision about whether bodily autonomy, federal labor laws, reducing trauma, and our value of fellow human beings matter or are just words we say.
Colleen Kennedy is a non-binary queer Pennsylvanian. She writes from Upper Darby, Pa.
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