Sexual harassment complaints more common in private sector
By KATHY DYE
THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
Although allegations of sexual harassment by state employees have appeared in the news several times recently, the executive director of the Alaska Human Rights Commission said it is more likely to occur in the private sector than in the public sector in Alaska.
Paula Haley keeps a database of sexual harassment complaints brought to her office and to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that tracks discrimination in the workplace.
In 1998, employees statewide filed 42 sexual harassment complaints with the state and federal commissions, she said. Of those, 40 were against private companies and two were against the public sector, which in her analysis includes city and state agencies.
In 1999, 35 of 44 sexual harassment complaints were filed against the private sector and nine against government.
"It's clearly not as big a percentage of the cases against government entities as it is against the private sector," Haley said.
She also said government employees typically complain more about issues other than sexual harassment.
"Sexual harassment cases in general are a low percentage of the total," Haley said.
She said privacy laws prohibit the commission from distinguishing complaints against the state versus municipalities in the public sector category. Also, her data does not include complaints resolved administratively or through unions or courts.
Haley said there is no way to measure the exact number of sexual harassment complaints against state government because they are addressed at many levels, and the state does not track them all. However, she considers her data an accurate reflection of sexual harassment complaints statewide.
"Without being able to put my fingers on all sorts of numbers, we generally have a strong sense of the complaints and the reason for that is we are here to make sure public policy against discrimination is upheld," Haley said.
Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com.
The state has agreed to pay $216,000 to settle a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit brought by a former employee of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
If the deal is inked as expected, the settlement would put to rest a civil lawsuit filed in 1999 seeking $1.5 million from the state for allegedly tolerating misconduct by a supervisor with the Division of Public Assistance, a branch of the department.
The lawsuit was filed by Linda Sharratt, an employee at a Division office in Juneau from 1997 to 1999. Sharratt alleged that after she began working for the agency, her supervisor, Claude "Rocky" Burt, repeatedly rubbed his crotch in front of her and other female employees and walked through the office with his pants unzipped, sexually harassing Sharratt. She claimed the state knew Burt was a convicted sexual offender when it hired him but failed to protect female employees from his "threatening" behavior.
She also alleged Burt discriminated against her because of her disability, a form of chronic fatigue syndrome, which made her physically and emotionally vulnerable to improper pressure and harassment in the workplace, according to the lawsuit. Sharratt claimed Burt knew she needed special treatment because of her disability but instead he regularly berated her, leading to a "full-scale relapse" of her medical condition, affecting her ability to speak, walk and comprehend.
The lawsuit was filed against the Department of Health and Social Services, not against Burt directly, so he did not file court papers defending himself against Sharratt's claims.
"I've always denied the allegations - I'm not going to get into the details," Burt said in a telephone interview. "The state has settled it, and I wasn't consulted in the settlement. That's all I have to say about it."
Burt said he was prepared to provide evidence as a witness for the state if the case went to trial.
Assistant Attorney General Patrick Gullufsen argued in court briefs the state acted appropriately, immediately launching an investigation in April 1999 after allegations were made that Burt had been harassing workers at the Juneau office. Gullufsen noted Burt resigned before the investigation was completed.
"The investigation of the allegations against Mr. Burt ended upon his resignation. No conclusions were reached and a number of prominent witnesses had not yet been interviewed," wrote Gullufsen, who also disputed whether Burt's behavior was really meant as a sexual gesture, if it even happened.
"There were a number of female witnesses who worked intimately with him who would (have testified) that they had not seen it, not been subjected to it," Gullufsen said in an interview.
Gullufsen argued Sharratt was promoted twice while working under Burt's supervision and that her evaluations reflected an employee doing fairly well. He challenged Sharratt's claim of having a disability while working at the Juneau office, noting her evaluations did not reflect that she had such an ailment or that she ever asked the state to accommodate one.
But Sharratt apparently was not alone in her feelings toward Burt. Court records show union steward Lee Lewis in May 1999 filed a class-action grievance against Burt for "overly controlling management style (and) chronic and open fondling" of himself through his pants "in front of some female employees." Lewis said in an interview she filed the grievance through the Alaska State Employees Association on behalf of four female employees with the Division of Public Assistance.
Court records show Lewis also filed a grievance for Sharratt that month, in which Lewis wrote to Division Director Jim Nordlund. "Sharratt and other employees discussed their concerns (about Burt) with upper level management but received no relief. ... Management's failure to correct such an obvious problem, and the resulting hostile workplace" violates the collective bargaining agreement.
Nordlund said he could not comment on the allegations because personnel matters are confidential under state law. He said other than the Sharratt lawsuit, he could not immediately recall any other allegations of sexual harassment involving his division.
"Anything certainly of a nature of an alleged sexual harassment or anything of that nature we are extremely sensitive to and we respond as quickly as we can," said Nordlund, who has overseen the division for six years.
The state said it launched an investigation right before the grievances were filed and Burt resigned shortly after. Even though Burt was gone, Sharratt said she could not return to work because his behavior had caused a "relapse" of chronic fatigue syndrome, and she asked the state to approve paid medical leave while she recovered. Nordlund, the division director, approved her request, but the state fired her in January after she filed the civil suit, said Sharratt's attorney Douglas Mertz.
"She now has no pay and no medical coverage or other benefits," Mertz argued.
Mertz built part of his case on Burt's criminal past, arguing the state was liable for Burt's behavior because it knew he was a convicted sexual offender when it hired him.
Gullufsen, the state attorney, said Burt was a state employee in the 1980s when he took personal leave and went to California. While there, he was accused of sexually abusing a minor and later convicted and sentenced to one year in jail, according to John Somers, California deputy district attorney. Burt resigned his state job to serve his sentence, and the state later rehired him, Gullufsen said. Burt's conviction was set aside in 1994 through a California law that allows some felons who do jail time and probation without breaking the law again to strike the convictions from their records, according to the district attorney's office in California.
Gullufsen argued that just because someone is convicted of sexually abusing a minor, that doesn't mean the person will sexually harass or abuse an adult. He also pointed out Sharratt worked at the division with another man previously convicted of sexual misconduct, and she had no complaints about him. In an interview, Gullufsen said the state could be subject to legal challenges by refusing to hire a person because of a prior conviction.
"Had the state refused to hire him back then in a position where he would not have ... uncontrolled contact with children, banned him entirely for any state appointment, it would have raised liability problems for refusing employment to someone who was otherwise qualified," Gullufsen said.
Gullufsen said the settlement was "reasonable" and that it was not an admission of any guilt.
Sharratt's attorney, Mertz, said he was happy with the agreement, which also requires the state to continue Sharratt's medical insurance for one year. He said many sexual harassment cases in Alaska settle for less.
Kathy Dye may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org