Columns appear here a week after they're sent to newspaper subscribers.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services  11-13-17
After 43 years of sexual harassment cases, a gleam of hope
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
           Sexual harassment is getting to be a pretty old subject. It burst into public awareness in 1974 in a lawsuit that reached the U. S. Supreme Court. There followed more lawsuits, congressional hearings, and conferences educating us on what it was and wasn’t, what was legal and illegal.
          But when Anita Hill leveled accusations at U. S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, she revealed just how divergent our views were. A co-worker said one morning, “My husband and I had another Anita Hill argument.” Most men had never experienced sexual harassment. Most women (88 percent) had and found Hill credible.
          By the 1990s, employers were starting to understand the term “hostile workplace” and realize the law would hold them responsible for workplace atmosphere and activities. I reported in 1996 that New Mexico’s rate of complaints substantially exceeded the national average and that attorney Eric Sirotkin advised employers to make it clear that the company had zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior and spell out what “inappropriate” is.
          In 2011 sexual harassment was again in the news when Herman Cain, a candidate for president, was dogged by accusations. At the same time, multiple women at the state Workforce Solutions Department call center reported unwanted touching, crude remarks and solicitations by two managers.
          I wrote, “Herman Cain can ‘vehemently deny’ all he wants, but in a large field of candidates, he’s the only one fending off sexual harassment complaints.”
          You’re probably saying, Herman who? Which tells us something about the impact such accusations have on political ambitions.
            So here we are in 2017 and it’s big news again, but the accused and the accusers are more famous. And the case of a resident raped at the UNM Medical school by a fellow resident has come to trial, revealing the med school’s lousy response.
          The well publicized dramas tend to set off waves of insecurity in the workplace, as both sexes recalculate what’s acceptable.
            Guy question: Can I tell a co-worker she looks nice?
            Answer:  Yes, if she’s old enough to be your mother.
            In my experience, 95 percent of men are decent and professional in their dealings with female co-workers and vice versa. (We now know it can go both ways and also involve same-sex harassment.)
          Normal people may now be fretting about once inviting a co-worker to coffee or blurting out something at an office party. Relax. Sexual harassment as a firing offense or a headline grabber has certain elements: The offender is more powerful than his victim, the attention is unwanted or forced, and the behavior is repeated.
          Normal people don’t act like this, but a certain few, because of their positions or their fame, don’t think the rules apply to them.
          This time the complaints and the discussion are different. Instead of nameless women who could be dissed and dismissed, well known, powerful women are coming forward. Because they can. Because they want to make a difference for other women. Who was more convincing -- Taylor Swift or the creep who couldn’t control his hands?
          Preceding the latest explosions, another presidential candidate famously bragged about grabbing (you know the rest). He was elected, but his statements pushed a lot of women to a tipping point. After that, the accusations seemed to cascade from one offender to the next, as more women and some men found their voices, as each one who came forward gave someone else the courage to do the same.
           I ended the 2011 column this way: “If you’re the unwilling recipient of offensive comments, jokes, texts, emails or touches, know that it’s not acceptable. You have options, thanks to others who have spoken up.”
           I keep hoping I won’t need to write another of these columns. Maybe we’re getting closer to that point.

Sherry Robinson photo

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     11-13-17
Local employment rules are divisive and burdensome
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The city of Albuquerque dodged a bullet recently when the voters rejected, by the narrowest of margins, an ordinance to require employers to provide sick leave.
Up the road, the local ordinance bug has hit Sandoval County, which is on the verge of enacting a right-to-work ordinance, with both civil and criminal penalties including jail time.
This ordinance was introduced by two county commissioners and therefore just needs approval by the commission itself, not by the voters. According to Bill Diven of the Sandoval Signpost, the commission has passed the ordinance once. Amendments were introduced at the Nov. 2 meeting, so it will have to be published and voted on again by the commission.
Diven said the sheriff’s office and district attorney objected to the law enforcement provision because they don’t have the resources, training or expertise to enforce employment law. One spokesperson called that provision an unfunded mandate.
The right-to-work argument has a long and tiresome history in New Mexico. I consider it a thinly veiled attempt to get rid of labor unions and weaken the worker protections that the labor movement spent a century developing.
The defeated Albuquerque sick leave ordinance was on the city election ballot based on a citizen initiative and petition drive. Most people who signed those petitions probably did not read the entire seven-page ordinance. Petition signers, probably without knowing, supported a “retaliation” clause, which says in part: “An employer shall not intimidate, retaliate, … or take or threaten any adverse action whatsoever against an employee because the employee has exercised rights protected under this ordinance … There shall be a rebuttable presumption of a violation … whenever an employer takes any adverse action against a person who, within 90 days, has exercised rights protected under this ordinance …”
In plain language, if an employee takes any sick leave, the employer cannot discipline that employee for any other reason for 90 days. Whatever the employee does, if the employer imposes any discipline, it is legally presumed the discipline was retaliation for the sick leave.
The employer can dispute that presumption, but if the employee complains to the city, the employer would have to pay penalties or engage in some kind of legal proceeding to prove there was no retaliation. And the city would have to enforce this provision: another unfunded mandate.
This is an open invitation for businesses to locate someplace else.
Now that the issue is front and center in the city, the City Council may try to draft a more reasonable sick leave ordinance.
Sick leave is good policy. But imposing burdensome mandates on small business is not. A better approach might be to adopt incentives, such as tax breaks, to reward businesses that treat their employees well.
There’s a bigger issue here than right-to-work or sick leave: the practice of bringing these divisive political issues to local government.
Cities and counties have traditionally been expected to focus on everyday community needs such as water, garbage, roads and police. That’s a big enough load to carry. We don’t need to turn them into political battlegrounds for issues that are already dividing us at the state and national levels. Nor is it helpful to expand the demands placed on them, stretch their budgets thinner due to new responsibilities, or turn New Mexico into a confusing patchwork of different regulations from county to county.
America is in a deeply traumatic time. Whichever side of the political divide you’re on, you’re feeling this. There are friends and neighbors you can’t talk to anymore, because of divisive politics.
So, should these arguments continue to be raised at the local level? I say no.
Bills were introduced in both 2016 and 2017 to prohibit local governments from enacting their own legislation regarding private employment. That concept should be applied in a bipartisan way and considered again.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through