Nebraska lawmakers pledge work to improve handling of workplace harassment complaints

By: - March 28, 2022 7:54 pm
State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha (Courtesy of Nebraska Unicameral Information Office)

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature appears headed for a review of how it handles workplace harassment complaints by employees and how it handles senators who breach ethical standards.

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha said Monday that a recent complaint filed against then-Sen. Mike Groene pointed up the “inadequacies” in the current complaint process.

Ethics committee

She asked members of the Legislature’s Executive Board to establish a “Special Ethics Investigative Committee” to study and recommend changes in the state’s complaint process.

Cavanaugh is the third state senator, joining Sens. Julie Slama and Wendy DeBoer, who have called for a re-examination of the Legislature’s workplace policies.

Sen. Dan Hughes
Sen. Dan Hughes of  Veango (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

During a noon public hearing Monday, the chairman of the Executive Board, Venango Sen. Dan Hughes, pledged to work on crafting an interim study that reflects the interests of the three senators.

Cavanaugh said Monday that she’s not wedded to any particular restructuring. Her resolution called for a six-member legislative ethics committee, consisting of three female and three male legislators.

Groene resigned after his female staffer complained that he had taken photographs of her and added captions of a sexual nature, without her permission. A panel of state lawmakers is investigating, as well as the Nebraska State Patrol.

Groene apologized

Groene has apologized for taking photographs without the permission of his aide, but he has denied that the photos were inappropriate.

Cavanaugh and other senators have complained that currently, legislative employees don’t have an easy answer of where to turn when they want to report allegations of bad behavior by bosses or co-workers.  Staffers work in a gray area, Cavanaugh has said, as nearly independent contractors for individual senators rather than as state employees protected by a union.

The Legislature’s harassment policy offers staffers multiple places to report being harassed, but they have only one path to getting a complaint handled: through the senators on the Legislature’s Executive Board.

Hughes, who cosponsored Cavanaugh’s proposal for an interim study, said he will craft a proposal for the Exec Board to consider yet this year.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.