DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa senators on Tuesday updated their employee policies and ethics rules to better address allegations of sexual misconduct and other harassment.
The Republican-controlled chamber held last-minute procedural votes to formally change their employee handbook and ethics rules. The handbook changes went into effect immediately, while language added to the Senate’s ethics rules were approved later on the chamber floor.
The Senate employee handbook expands details on the process for how people who work in and around the Senate can report misconduct and how they’re protected from retaliation. Senate Democrats had argued the previous policies were unclear and inadequate.
Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, a Des Moines Democrat, called the updates “a good first step.” She later added in a statement: “Senators are finally taking steps today to ensure the Iowa Senate will become a safe and healthy environment.”
The handbook previously prohibited retaliation against employees who report harassment, but the issue was at the center of a lawsuit by a former staffer for Senate Republicans.
Kirsten Anderson, a former communications director for Senate GOP, said she was fired in 2013 only hours after reporting sexual misconduct. A jury last year agreed with Anderson and awarded her $2.2 million. The state later reached a $1.75 million settlement, which was taken out of the general fund.
The lawsuit led to an internal report on workplace culture that indicated some unnamed senators and staffers previously used sexually suggestive comments around the chamber and workplace. A former Republican lawmaker with human resources experience later submitted recommendations to the chamber aimed at improvements.
Bill Dix, the former majority leader, claimed during and after the lawsuit that he fired Anderson for poor performance. Dix resigned last month after video surfaced showing the married Republican kissing a Statehouse lobbyist who wasn’t his wife.
The subject of harassment continues to be an issue in statehouses and other workplaces around the country amid the #MeToo movement. Earlier this month, a clerk for a Republican senator was fired after chamber officials said there was a “credible” complaint of sexual harassment. Additional information has not been released.
Senate President Charles Schneider, a West Des Moines Republican, pointed out the changes will be reviewed annually. He noted the ex-clerk was fired shortly after the complaint was filed.
“I think there’s always work to be done in this area,” he said.
Separately, David Jamison, a state housing agency director, was abruptly fired last month after Gov. Kim Reynolds said her staff received “credible allegations of sexual harassment” against him. Reynolds has refused to provide more information about the firing, saying she wants to protect the privacy of victims. Jamison has not responded to multiple attempts to reach him for comment.
The changes to the Senate handbook, which also requires more harassment prevention training, recognizes the addition of a new human resources director position. That manager was hired late last year to work with both the Senate and House.
The changes don’t impact the GOP-controlled House, which has separate policies and rules on harassment prevention. A spokesman for House Republicans said in an email that leadership continues to work with the HR director in reviewing existing policies.