Once-quiet meetings among City of Seattle employees concerned about harassment and discrimination in the workplace have begun to spill into the public eye this week. The Seattle Silence Breakers, a growing group of mostly female city workers, held a rally on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday, breaking their silence and demanding changes to how the city addresses complaints.
The rally, attended by more than 20 current and former city employees, was quickly followed by a Thursday morning City Council committee meeting, in which members of the Silence Breakers spoke of their concerns as some of their supervisors looked on from the audience.
The members found a sympathetic set of elected officials, who grilled Seattle City Light’s leadership to explain what was happening to improve workplace culture. Councilmember Debora Juarez said she believed the workplace issues have been occurring for years, but suggested the response now may be different.
“The difference is, you have a majority of women on the Seattle City Council,” she said, pledging action, legislative or otherwise.
Amid the #MeToo movement across the country, the formation of the Silence Breakers, first reported by Crosscut, and their public appearances this week have brought home the reckoning with how women are treated inside the City of Seattle.
But the group's discussions have also gone beyond sexual harassment, folding in concerns about intimidation, toxicity and racial discrimination in the workplace.
The issues have been sharp enough to spur not just the invitation from Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda to Thursday's meeting of a council committee overseeing City Light, but also discussion about creating new offices for oversight and a mayoral-led task force for discussing how the city should improve.
The extent of the concerns remains difficult to quantify as employees fear retaliation from their bosses for speaking out. In council chambers, some of the Silence Breakers read anonymous testimony from their co-workers. And among those city employees who did appear at the Wednesday rally, some were fearful. Asked if appearing made her nervous, Natalie, a longtime employee in Seattle Public Utilities, who declined to provide her last name, said, “It does, but hell, I’ve been here 37 years.”
Still, enough women spoke to illustrate a pattern and a belief that there are deep-seated issues in city government. “All we want to do is just come to a workplace where it’s safe, where it’s respected, where we can get the job done, where we can have opportunities and where we’re not silenced and oppressed,” said Natalie. “That’s the way it should be.”
In addition to putting a public face to the concerns, the Silence Breakers had several specific demands. Doreen McGrath, a former employee in the Information Technology Department, said they want Mayor Jenny Durkan to “release the numbers…of complaints that are out there, how much [the city is] paying in settlements, what is costing the city to make all these settlements. What are the facts? I don’t care that they’re still just accusations, but how long have they been languishing?”
In an interview earlier this year, Durkan told Crosscut she could not find a good summary of how often the city had settled complaints, but McGrath was skeptical.
The second demand is to make the Office for Civil Rights independent from the mayor’s office. The office, she said, should be “independent of the mayor’s office, independent of all the HR departments so they can effectively administer the rules that are already on the books."
Thursday’s meeting after the rally was focused specifically on issues in Seattle City Light, where some of the most vocal complaints of sexism have originated. It was an uncomfortable meeting for the department’s leadership, as many of the Silence Breakers have specifically called leadership and the department’s HR director, Davonna Johnson, for not doing enough to address complaints.
Councilmember Juarez, in particular, also became visibly frustrated as Johnson defended the department’s 24-year-old manual on workplace culture. “Apparently it’s not working, the message is not getting through and that’s why we’re here today,” said Juarez.
Juarez also pushed Johnson and City Light's interim CEO, Jim Baggs, to say how often City Light had settled discrimination lawsuits. Both hedged heavily, but Juarez kept pushing until Johnson said she believed it to be twice in the last five years. Crosscut recently reported on one such settlement.
Leaving the meeting, Mosqueda made it clear she wanted to see more from the department how they were reacting to the new claims of harassment. Although Councilmember Juarez didn't rule out a heavy handed approach to addressing workplace issues in the city, Juarez said it didn't necessarily need to be that way. She pointed to her experience growing up in the Blackfeet Tribe where, she said, issues could be addressed by rethinking the language people used.
"It doesn’t always have to be hitting someone over the head or suing them," she said. "Just change the language."