SALEM — The Oregon Legislature will pay $1.1 million to eight victims of sexual harassment and hostile workplace behavior at the state Capitol under a settlement announced Tuesday by the state labor department.
House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, both Democrats, issued a joint statement apologizing to the “women who suffered harm during their time in the Capitol.”
Both were accused in an investigation launched by former Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian of not thoroughly addressing multiple allegations of sexual harassment by Sen. Jeff Kruse, a Republican from the timber town of Roseburg, who resigned last year but maintains his innocence.
In addition to the eight victims, a ninth, Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, will be paid $26,612 by the Legislature for attorney’s fees and other out-of-pocket expenses. Gelser was the first to publicly accuse Kruse of misconduct, marking the #MeToo movement’s first impact in the Oregon State Capitol. She did not seek a larger settlement, saying she wanted to keep the focus on the other women.
Gelser said in an interview in her Senate office that the settlement “sends a really strong message to Oregonians and to people in this building that sexual harassment is a really big deal. This is a seven-figure settlement that impacts a lot of women, and that demonstrates that we have had a significant problem here.”
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said she’s working hard with a bipartisan group of colleagues to enact recommendations of the Oregon Law Commission to “make the Capitol more inclusive, equitable and accountable.”
At one point, Burdick herself had seen Kruse wrap his arms around Gelser at her desk on the Senate floor and step inappropriately close to her, and reacted by striding up to Kruse and saying: “Get your hands off Sen. Gelser.”
Before the settlement — one of the largest the Bureau of Labor and Industries has brokered — was announced, Courtney took a 10-day medical leave for a flare-up of thyroid eye disease. Spokeswoman Carol Currie said doctors warned the 75-year-old that his condition will worsen if he doesn’t take time to recover properly.
The labor department said its complaint process was politicized and inhibited both sides from participating thoroughly in its investigation. Courtney and Kotek complained that they were not questioned by labor department investigators. The two legislative leaders had resisted handing over documents from the Legislature to Avakian for the investigation last year. Avakian went to court, which compelled Courtney and Kotek to turn over the documents.
Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, who replaced Avakian in January, said the settlement provides justice for the victims, accountability for the Legislature, and the establishment of a system to better respond to future workplace complaints.
“This settlement ensures that the injured parties have their harms addressed,” Hoyle said. “It puts in place requirements and processes that, when fully implemented, will improve the Capitol as a workplace and will provide appropriate support to workers who may have issues in the future.”
The settlement calls for the Legislature to pay a combined $1.1 million in non-economic damages to eight people who worked at the Capitol in a variety of roles but were not elected officials. The largest individual damages award is $415,000. The labor commission said it won’t release the names of the eight in order to protect their privacy.
All aggrieved parties involved in this settlement agreed to release the Legislature of any future claims or litigation, including a lawsuit that was filed last month by two former Kruse interns against Kruse, the Legislature, Courtney and others, seeking millions of dollars in damages, the labor commission said.
The Legislature must hire an outside attorney, subject to labor commission review and input, to handle any complaints filed until lawmakers establish an Equity Office to handle complaints, as recommended by the Oregon Law Commission.
Gelser, who has become a leading advocate against workplace harassment, applauded the terms of the settlement but said she worries her fellow lawmakers will “decide that this situation is now resolved with a check.”
Gelser expressed regret that there were no serious repercussions for the state’s Legislative Counsel or other top leaders implicated in the scandal. She added the Legislature still needs to work to regain the trust of the public and prove that legislators are willing to address these issues head-on.
“We may have a settlement, but we also see that the institutions that safeguard power are still very, very strong,” she said. “If we have the same institutions with the same leadership and the same culture, we can’t really expect a change.”
CAMAS VALLEY — In a cold, shadowy cafeteria, about 80 people associated with Camas Valley Charter School came together for soup, chili and camaraderie.
The power in Camas Valley went off during the first night of the snowstorm and has remained off for more than a week, leaving many to seek out the hot lunch at the school.
“We came to see some different faces and reconnect,” Kayla Wright said.
Her family has been living with relatives since Monday, coming back to their home in Camas Valley once a day to feed the cats, and hoping for the power to come back on.
“We need to have school as soon as possible,” Superintendent Patrick Lee said. Students at the charter have missed six days of school so far.
One way the school hopes to get back some of the instructional time that was lost is by asking the Oregon Department of Education for an allowance to miss the Smarter Balanced tests.
“They say they value education over testing, so I’ll poke the bear and see if they really mean it,” Lee said. The Smarter Balanced test take nearly a week for each student to complete and are used as an assessment tool for educators and administrators.
Camas Valley Charter School typically has classes Monday through Thursday, but Friday classes will be added for March 15 and April 26. Lee is also hoping to come to an agreement with the teachers’ union to allow instruction on May 3 and May 17, days that were set aside for teacher in-service days.
Since the week lost at school was literacy week, those events have been rescheduled for the week of March 11.
“A lot of kids eat breakfast and lunch and I’m worried if they’re eating,” substitute teacher Treva Wright-Quinn said.
Mary Bringhurst and Angela Hooker helped organize Tuesday’s luncheon and were able to get some donations from local businesses with almost no notice.
“The community does a good job pulling together,” Bringhurst said, adding that several of the high school students went around with chain saws in the days after the storm to help cut down big branches.
The school building was mostly unharmed by the storm, although maintenance was working to remove all broken branches from the school property.
Power is expected to return to the town before the end of the week, but outlying areas may be without power for several more weeks.
“Once we have power here (at the school) and people need a shower or a place for comfort, we want to facilitate them,” Lee said. “If we have power we want to help.”
But during Tuesday’s meeting, the slow cookers were powered by a generator and people wore big winter coats to stay warm.
Notifications from the charter school on closures or delays will also start to come later, as administrators hope the power will return to town in just a matter of days.
The number of people without power in Douglas County hasn’t changed since Tuesday.
A week and a half after the biggest snowstorm in decades caused a system-wide outage, more than 4,700 people remain without power as of Wednesday morning, according to the Douglas Electric Cooperative online outage map.
But the utility has released more specific time estimates of when people should expect their power back.
The highest estimate is up to two and a half weeks in the Scottsburg and Upper Smith River areas, where Douglas Electric has three crews and nine trucks currently working to repair power lines and rebuild broken utility poles.
The estimate for Elkton and Curtain, where there are four crews and 12 trucks working, is up to two weeks.
In the Hogan Road, Umpqua and Tyee area, the estimate is up to one and a half weeks. Six crews and 18 trucks are working in the area.
The estimate in Scotts Valley, Elkhead, Tenmile, Melrose and Lookingglass is up to one more week. Eight crews and 24 trucks are working in the area.
Camas Valley can expect to have power back in the next day or two, according to Douglas Electric. Two crews and six trucks are working there.
The estimates represent general areas, and individual residences may not receive power for longer, the utility says.
Todd Munsey, spokesman for Douglas Electric, said the new time estimates show crews are moving in a positive direction.
He said Tuesday started optimistically.
“The best start to this day came when a linemen approached me about 5:30 this morning,” Munsey said in a Tuesday afternoon press release. “He had seen the timeframes on my ‘restoration forecast’ map, said, ‘Oh, we can do better than that.’ It’s not that we underestimate our crews, it’s just that it’s nice to be reminded how focused and efficient they are when building and repairing structures.”
Earlier in the week, Munsey said Douglas Electric has been concerned about supply availability, because utilities in other parts of Oregon that have been dealing with similar storm effects also continue to order equipment such as electrical wire and utility poles.
“We are receiving equipment and supplies daily from all over the northwest,” Munsey said Tuesday. “Our hope, since other utilities are also dealing with supply shortages after the storm, is that the flow continues. Having too many crews and not enough supplies would be a waste of important talent.”
Munsey acknowledged that people continuing to struggle with outages may “be anxious and frustrated, and that’s understandable.”
Mike Fieldman has made helping people his life’s work. For the past 20 years, he’s been doing that as the director of the United Community Action Network.
In February, he announced he will retire later this year.
Fieldman has been at UCAN’s helm for close to half its 50 years, and grown it from a $5.5 million a year operation with about 90 employees to one with an annual budget ranging from $17 million to $21 million and an employee roster of more than 200. Under his watch, it extended services to Josephine County, too.
The food bank expanded, AmeriCorps volunteers were brought into the community and bus services were added. A new Head Start facility was built. The number of apartments available to people struggling with problems like substance abuse and homelessness increased from a handful to 93.
Despite all that, Fieldman is humble about his contributions and optimistic about the organization’s future.
“I want UCAN to continue to thrive. It isn’t about me. It really is about the people who work here, the services we do. I just see myself as having been a steward of the legacy that was given to me, and hopefully passing that on to somebody else,” he said.
And, he said, there’s plenty left for the next leader to accomplish around issues like the housing shortage and food insecurity.
Fieldman sat down recently to talk about his work. During the interview, he said some of his proudest moments came during the recession.
“We had people who used to donate to us coming in and saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m here. I used to donate to you and now I’m here needing help.’ I’m really proud of the fact that we were able to be here for people in our community when they needed it,” he said.
Fieldman said there will be a need for organizations like UCAN as long as it is possible, as it is now, to work full time and not be able to support a family with that income.
Nonprofit organizations are able to tread a middle path between business and government, he said. Like government, they’re accountable to the public for the way their money is spent. Like business, they are required to be flexible enough to capitalize on opportunity. There are 1,100 community action networks across the country. They were started by President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in 1964, and gained steam under President Ronald Reagan, who moved to limit government and increase the role of the nonprofit sector.
That history has given UCAN, and other organizations like it, the ability to bring in dollars from outside the area but use them to make local decisions about how best to address local problems.
“We see what the needs are in the community and try to address them, and we become the repository of programs the government can no longer provide,” he said.
It also means they contribute to the local economy. The nonprofit sector makes up about 15 percent of the nation’s economy. As one of the county’s largest nonprofits, UCAN has generated hundreds of local jobs and spent millions of dollars on construction projects.
Fieldman’s life’s work has centered around social justice. He started his career working with inner city kids in Chicago.
“I guess I just got hooked on making people’s lives better,” he said.
When he was in college, Fieldman briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a minister in the Presbyterian church.
“But I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do or where my strengths were. I just wasn’t good enough with words to think about giving sermons every Sunday,” he said.
You might say he wound up in a different type of ministry, one of reaching out to help the poor and downtrodden.
“I have definitely felt like what I’m doing is a calling for me,” he said.
He said he has loved his work in Douglas County, a place he said is filled with an extraordinary number of generous people.
“There’s more financial support here than any other community I’ve ever worked in before. So that’s unique. I think it’s unique to Douglas County,” he said.
In retirement, he plans to spend more time with his music, playing guitar and singing in two local choirs. He also plans to travel. He’s open minded about what else he might accomplish during retirement. He said he’s always been the sort of person who sets out on a path and just sees where it leads.
“I feel that if there are other things I’m meant to do, that path will open up. The door will open itself up to me, and I’ll know what to do. I’m comfortable with that,” he said.