In 2018, amid the #MeToo reckoning, the leaders of the Massachusetts House of Representatives created a new position, an “independent” Equal Employment Opportunity officer to examine allegations of harassment or discrimination while protecting the confidentiality of accusers and witnesses.
In June 2019, the House Rules Committee appointed Boston employment lawyer John McLafferty to the role. McLafferty left for a new job in the fall of 2020.
Fifteen months later, a successor still hasn’t been hired.
That’s left House staffers wondering who they can go to when they need to privately report an instance of harassment, and questioning whether the creation of the role was just an empty gesture.
Ten current and former House staff, most of whom spoke anonymously out of fear of retaliation, told the Globe that they believe the unfilled role signals a lack of commitment to workplace safety by House leadership, and alleged that a self-evaluation McLafferty had conducted regarding staff pay and job descriptions was never finished or discussed after he left the House.
Ana Vivas, a spokesperson for Speaker Ronald Mariano, said that the self-evaluation of the House’s pay practices was indeed finished, and that the House is “engaging with outside experts to develop a plan to address any wage differentials.”
She didn’t shed light on a time line for hiring McLafferty’s replacement, but said “the House intends to hire a full-time EEO Office[r] as soon as possible.”
The year-plus delay doesn’t inspire confidence, current and former staffers say.
“It demonstrates to me that House leadership is not seriously invested or committed to the safety of its staff,” said Nicole Eigbrett, a community organizer who worked as a legislative aide from 2017 to 2020. “The equity consideration is secondary.”
Attention to staff pay and treatment on Beacon Hill has come under new scrutiny after a salary study commissioned by the Senate but never publicly released found fault with the chamber’s hiring and pay practices, concluding the approach “can be perceived as lacking fairness” and may lead to “problematic staff turnover.”
The Globe obtained a copy of the report, which was conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In the House, McLafferty was tasked with hosting annual training, developing written policies and procedures for making complaints, and creating a process for auditing House offices. The job posting for the position required applicants to have a decade of human resources or legal experience.
In an e-mail to House staff and members announcing his resignation in November 2020, McLafferty said it was not his intent to leave the House so soon, but the new job, working for Commonwealth Care Alliance, a health care system, “was simply too attractive for me to ignore.”
When he left the job, McLafferty made a base salary of $133,846, and received buyout pay of nearly $4,000 in unused sick and vacation days, state payroll records show.
“Through the leadership of the Speaker and his leadership team much has been done to bolster the House’s human resources infrastructure and create a framework that strives to provide all Members and staff with a respectful workplace,” he wrote in his departure e-mail.
According to current and former staffers, McLafferty hosted sexual harassment and ethics training, met with staff in small groups upon request, and “filled in the gaps” left by the House’s human resources team. Most said they thought his hiring symbolized a turning point in the House’s commitment to address a toxic culture of harassment and sexual misconduct that permeated the Senate, too.
The House rules authorize the chamber’s counsel to contract with a temporary officer to perform the duties during a vacancy, though spokespeople for Mariano did not answer questions as to whether there is or has been a temporary employee filling that role.
A House aide who has worked in the chamber since 2020 said that by not replacing McLafferty or communicating other ways to address such problems, “staff feel disposable.”
“That is the bottom line,” she said.
A legislative aide who has worked in the State House since 2019 said that without a designated person to speak to confidentially in instances of harassment or discrimination, it’s “scary.”
“As someone who loves my job, I wouldn’t want to lose my job because I spoke up about someone,” the aide, who asked to remain anonymous, said.
Some staff, however, say that while replacing McLafferty would show a commitment to staff safety, it wouldn’t necessarily solve all the problems. Some staff didn’t see him as a truly independent figure, and they believe members and staff would be better served by someone who worked outside of the State House.
According to the House rules, the equal employment officer is appointed by the Rules Committee chair, and can be fired if the House counsel and director of human resources find wrongdoing. If they do, the officer’s firing must pass a majority vote of the Rules Committee or roll call vote of all representatives.
“I think what would benefit staff and minimize this fear and culture is the creation of an ombudsman office that is truly independent of House or Senate leadership,” Eigbrett, the former House staffer, said.
There is no office that processes complaints from both chambers, and staff say that the systemic problems in the State House may transcend the role of one person or office. A start, some said, would be better communication as to what House leaders are doing to address harassment or discrimination.
“I don’t think one staff role will fix everything,” said Shannon Alessandroni, who worked as a House aide from January 2019 through September 2021. “The issues are so interconnected, it’s hard to say what will fix things. They might be working on this stuff very diligently, but no one knows.”