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Sexual Harassment Down but Not Out

Times Staff Writer

Six hundred female Los Angeles city employees, about 17% of those surveyed, said they were sexually harassed in the last year, according to a report made public Thursday.

The survey was conducted by the Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women. And Paula Petrotta, the panel’s executive director, said the results have prompted her to ask Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to appoint an ombudsman to address the problem.

“A follow-up formal investigation needs to occur to delve further into the issues of sexual harassment and gender discrimination within the city of Los Angeles,” the survey report said.

The percentage of women saying they were sexually harassed dropped from 37% in 1992, the last time the city conducted a survey, but Petrotta said the problem remained serious.

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“I think we are doing a better job than in 1992, but we can do more,” Petrotta said. “It still is significant in terms of the morale, the perception, the litigation. The percentages may not be as high, but that’s still a lot of people.”

Councilwoman Jan Perry said the survey was cause for concern.

“That’s 600 women too many,” Perry said. “Even though the trend is downward, it is still an issue that is very raw and on the public’s mind, and we need to pay attention to it.”

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement that he has a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and that such issues are best handled by the city’s personnel department and the city attorney.

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The survey was sent to all 12,793 female city workers and filled out by 3,564 of them.

For 71% of those who said they were harassed, the behavior involved teasing, jokes, remarks, insults, questions or language of a sexual nature. Nearly 30% reported suggestive gestures, ogling, whistling or other sounds. Four women reported attempted rape or threats of bodily harm.

The survey found that sexual harassment was a bigger problem in some jobs than others.

Petrotta said she was concerned that 28% of women surveyed in protective service jobs, including the police and fire agencies, said they had been harassed.

“You still have two quasi-military departments with stringent policies,” she said. “You have more men in both.”

An ethnic breakdown found that women who identified themselves as either Hispanic or Latina reported the highest percentage of harassment, at 43%.

Forty-two percent of incidents involved male co-workers and 37% involved men who were non-employees interacting with the city bureaucracy.

Also troubling was that 46% of women who filed formal complaints felt they were unfairly treated by the person handling their complaint, Petrotta said. With so many women distrustful of the process, Petrotta said she was recommending that the mayor appoint an ombudsman to track the handling of complaints and litigation.

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She also expressed surprise that the city attorney’s office did not track lawsuit payouts involving sexual harassment. A spokesman for the city attorney confirmed there was no breakout of costs of litigation for that category.

Councilwoman Perry said she would have to review the proposal for an ombudsman, including the cost, but said another solution might be to set up a complaint hotline.

According to City Council records, so far this year the council has agreed to pay $900,000 to settle four lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, including two by employees of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Last month, the City Council agreed to pay $215,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit by Ibtisam Abouidah, a Sanitation Bureau employee.

The engineering associate alleged that a supervisor at the Hyperion Waste Treatment Plant hired her and then repeatedly asked her to join him in a carpool, even though accompanying him was prohibited by Abouidah’s Muslim faith, said Allen Felahy, her attorney.

“He kept asking and asking and asking, and she kept saying no,” Felahy said.

The lawsuit alleges that the supervisor also touched her buttocks when she walked past him, and that he touched his crotch when talking to her. The supervisor eventually fired her.

When she complained to a city office set up to resolve complaints, the investigation was superficial, Felahy said.

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“All they do is find ways to cover up the wrongdoing,” said the attorney, who has handled six successful sexual harassment lawsuits against the city.

In settling the case, the council did not admit wrongdoing by any city employee.

Sexual discrimination also remains a problem, with 482 women reporting incidents in the last year, in many cases involving being passed over for promotions.


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