Norton Introduces Bill to Bring Congress Under Workplace Rights Laws During Public Service Recognition Week

May 7, 2013
Press Release

WASHINGTON, DC – Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) today reintroduced her Congress Leads By Example Act of 2013, during Public Service Recognition Week, to subject Congress and its agencies to health and safety standards and civil rights laws that currently apply to executive branch agencies and private sector employers, but not to Congress.  The bill, which Norton also introduced in 2011, is a follow up to her 2010 hearings and investigation on safety violations in the U.S. Capitol complex that endangered employees and visitors and claims of workplace hazards by Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) employees.  The bill also draws from the latest Office of Compliance (OOC) State of the Congressional Workplace report, issued in 2011, which highlights the successes and shortcomings in the workplace rights, safety, health and accessibility laws that aim to protect legislative branch employees.  This is the third bill this year Norton has introduced in solidarity with public service employees.  In March, during the first week of sequestration, Norton introduced a resolution, for which she is seeking co-sponsors, to commend federal employees for their work through times of war and peace, recession and prosperity, and global instability and uncertainty.  In April, she introduced the Member of Congress Pay Sequestration and Fairness Act, to subject the pay of members of the House and Senate to any future sequestration, or automatic, across-the-board spending cuts.

 

“While members of Congress may differ on the merits of sequestration and other bills, once Congress passes laws, members should abide by the laws we impose on the American people and American businesses,” said Norton.  “That was the promise Congress made when we passed the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995.  The CAA was an important first step in making the legislative branch accountable to its employees, but it did not finish the job.”

 

When Norton was chair of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management during the 111th Congress, she conducted an investigation of CVC staff complaints that employees were required to work in uniforms inappropriate for outdoor work in the summer and winter, and had limits on their water consumption, which were corrected as a result of the hearing.  The hearing also examined claims by the OOC of thousands of safety hazards in the Capitol complex.  The CAA, which created the OOC, gave congressional branch employees protection under only thirteen of many civil rights, labor, and workplace safety and health laws that private sector and executive branch employees currently are protected by, but exempted the legislative branch from other important protections.  While the CAA protects legislative branch employees from harassment, Congress, for example, exempted congressional offices from provisions in national sexual harassment laws that protect workers, such as requiring employees to post workers’ rights or to do training.  The OOC report indicates that while the overall number of employee requests for counseling on workplace issues decreased, requests related to claims of discrimination and harassment, as well as those related to intimidation and retaliation, increased in 2010.

 

Norton, who was the first woman to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, seeks to resolve many of the remaining gaps in congressional workplace laws, including reporting of safety and health hazards, subpoena power to conduct health and safety investigations, and whistleblower protection for legislative branch employees.

 

Norton’s introduction statement follows.

 

Statement of Eleanor Holmes Norton on the Introduction of the Congress Leads by Example Act of 2013

May 7, 2013

Ms. NORTON. Mr. Speaker, today, I introduce the Congress Leads by Example Act of 2013, to subject Congress and the rest of the legislative branch to the federal workplace laws and standards that protect employees in the private sector and the executive branch.  In a similar vein, a few weeks ago, I introduced the Member of Congress Pay Sequestration and Fairness Act, which would subject the pay of members of the House and Senate to any future sequestration, or automatic, across-the-board spending cuts.  While members of Congress may differ on the merits of sequestration, once Congress passes laws, members should abide by the laws we impose on the American people and American businesses.  That was the promise Congress made when we passed the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (CAA). 

The CAA was an important first step in making the legislative branch accountable to its employees, but it did not finish the job.  The CAA did bring the legislative branch under 13 major civil rights, labor and workplace safety and health laws, but it exempted the legislative branch from important notice and training provisions, and altogether omitted important substantive and administrative protections.

The Congress Leads by Example Act of 2013 is a necessary follow up bill to my 2010 investigation of staff complaints at the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) and to the recommendations from the Office of Compliance (OOC), which found a gap in OOC’s authority to enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA) provisions against the legislative branch.  In the 111th Congress, as chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, I held a hearing examining claims by OOC, which was created by the CAA, of an estimated 6,300 safety hazards in the U.S. Capitol complex, as well as complaints by CVC tour guides that they were compelled to work in uniforms that were inappropriate for outdoor work in the summer and winter and that there were limits placed on their water consumption.  Our hearing demonstrated that many of the serious safety hazards in the Capitol complex had been resolved, and the Architect of the Capitol assured us that it continues to correct the outstanding hazards with due speed.  Eventually, the formation of a union local by CVC tour guides led to specific improvements in uniform and water consumption practices and policies.

However, in a 2010 report entitled Recommendations for Improvements to the Congressional Accountability Act, OOC identified additional provisions of federal workplace laws and standards that should be applicable to the legislative branch, including laws that grant the OOC General Counsel subpoena power, provide whistleblowers with protection from retaliation, and require the maintenance of employment records.  In OOC’s 2011 report entitled State of the Congressional Workplace, it presents the successes and shortcomings of the CAA by tracking the trends in legislative branch employee complaints and workplace safety hazards in fiscal year 2010.  My bill takes into account the OOC reports, and seeks to both apply the standard of fairness to employees in the legislative branch that Congress requires for other employees and to provide a safer work environment for Congress and Capitol Hill employees by bringing the legislative branch substantially in line with what is legally required of private sector employers and the executive branch.

As Congress searches for ways to trim the federal budget, it would be timely to provide whistleblower protections to legislative branch employees so that they can report misuse of federal funds and other legal violations without fear of retaliation.  My bill provides general whistleblower protections, also championed by Senators Chuck Grassley and Claire McCaskill.  My bill also makes applicable additional OSHA provisions to the legislative branch, including providing subpoena authority to OOC to conduct inspections and investigations into OSHA violations, and requiring the posting of notices in workplaces detailing employee rights to a safe workplace under OSHA.

This bill also furthers the CAA's mission to prevent discrimination in legislative branch offices by prohibiting the legislative branch from making adverse employment decisions on the basis of an employee's wage garnishment or involvement in bankruptcy proceedings pursuant to the Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA) and Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code.  The bill requires legislative branch employers to provide their employees with notice of their rights and remedies under the CAA anti-discrimination provisions through the placement of signage in offices highlighting relevant anti-discrimination laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.  The bill also requires legislative branch offices to provide training to employees about their CAA rights and remedies.  Adding the CCPA and bankruptcy provisions will deter economic discrimination, while the notice and training provisions will empower legislative branch employees with the full knowledge of their rights.

Finally, the bill bolsters the CAA's recordkeeping requirements.  It extends to the legislative branch the obligation to maintain accurate records of safety information and employee injuries, as otherwise required by OSHA, as well as employee records necessary to administer anti-discrimination laws.  The enhanced recordkeeping requirements will facilitate better enforcement of laws.

On the eve of the CAA's passage in 1995, then-Senator Olympia Snowe may have best captured the intent of Congress and the will of the people when she remarked, “Congress simply cannot continue to live above the law and call itself a body that is representative of the America we live in today.  After all, what kind of message does Congress send to Americans when it sets itself above the law?  What kind of message does Congress send to America when it believes it is beholden to different standards?  And how can Congress claim to pass laws in the best interest of the American people if Congress refuses to abide by those very same laws....Congress should be the very last institution in America to exempt itself from living under the nation's laws.”  By passing this bill and heeding this wise call to action, Congress will help restore the faith of the public in this institution by redoubling our efforts to exercise leadership by example.  I urge bipartisan support for this important measure.


Published: May 7, 2013