Council moves forward legislation to create Office of Employee Ombud

This morning, the Council moved out of committee a bill that would officially create the Office of the Employee Ombud to provide assistance to city employees dealing with work-related discrimination or harassment.

Mayor Durkan announced back in September her plan to create the office, along with a new investigations unit in the HR department, as part of her response to recommendations from an Inter-Departmental Taskforce (IDT) looking at workplace harassment and discrimination. Originally it was believed that this bill would be rolled into the 2019 budget omnibus package, but Council member Mosqueda wanted to work on the bill some more and sent it to her committee instead. Funding for the office is in the approved 2019 budget, but with a proviso that limits spending the funds until the Council officially passes legislation creating the office.

This morning in Mosqueda’s committee, the conversation largely focused on issues and amendments to address IDT recommendations that the Mayor’s proposed bill didn’t. Those amendments, incorporated into a single “substitute version,” include:

  • The Office of the Employee Ombud (OEO) must submit an implementation plan to the Council by June 30, 2019 describing how it will operate, maintain data on its activities, maintain and communicate confidentiality, recommend how oversight should be structured, let employees know that interacting with the OEO does not constitute filing a complaint and the OEO can’t dispense legal advice, recommend trainings, coordinate with the city’s contracted Employee Assistance Program, review and recommend changes to the city’s existing structures to address harassment and discrimination, and ensure that the OEO is free from undue political influence.
  • Ā Strengthening the OEO’s independence while maintaining it in the Executive Branch, including an ongoing oversight role for the IDT that the OEO can consult with, concurrent reporting to both the Mayor and the Council, and requirements for who provides input for the OEO’s annual report.
  • Expanding the OEO’s role to provide assistance to all city employees, not just Executive Branch employees.
  • Broaden the OEO’s role from a neutral provider of information to actively providing assistance to employees in understanding and assessing their situation and options — for both employees who have workplace conduct concerns and those who have allegedly engaged in inappropriate conduct. To that end, employees would be allowed to bring another person with them for emotional support to any discussions employees have with the OEO.
  • Clarifying oversight of the OEO. The office would need to consult with the IDT, labor organizations, and other stakeholders in preparing its recommendations regarding oversight, and it would need to consult with the same groups in preparing its annual report.
  • Clarifying the city’s accountability back to the OEO. The office would need to report and provide recommendations on training, patterns of inappropriate workplace conduct, and systemic changes. In return, the Mayor and the City Council (either jointly or independently) would need to respond to the OEO’s recommendations with 120 days of their receipt of the report, noting: policies or legislation intending to be put before the Council; any further information the Council or Mayor would like from the OEO; any alternatives the Council or Mayor would like the OEO to develop; and any recommendations the Council or Mayor intend to reject or consider on a longer timeframe.

The amended bill passed out of committee unanimously, and is headed for final approval by the full Council next Monday.