Architect of the Capitol

Four Key Workplace Laws That Don't Apply to Congress

The Office of Compliance has some ideas for updating protections for Hill workers. And it wants a new name.

If you just started a job on Capitol Hill as one of the legislative branch's thousands of employees, you have workplace rights. Some, anyway.

Congress doesn't always like to apply the same laws to itself that the rest of the country must follow. When it comes to employee rights, the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 sets guidelines for the House, the Senate, and several related agencies (such as the Capitol Police, the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, and the Congressional Budget Office). It was passed to help ensure that Hill staffers enjoy at least some of the same workplace and employment protections as private- and most public-sector employees do.

Twenty years later, the legislative branch still hasn't quite caught up to other employers. The Office of Compliance, the agency tasked with enforcing the CAA, has some recommendations forupdating and improving the law that were sent in a report to House and Senate leaders last week. They include the following.

1) Mandate training on antidiscrimination, antiharassment, and anti-retaliation.

In 2002, federal executive-branch employees began receiving this training at least every two years and as new hires. Such training isn't mandated for legislative-branch employees. It's "sporadic," according to the report, and the training often doesn't involve or mention the Office of Compliance, which is the go-to place for legislative workplace disputes.

2) Require that notices be posted detailing congressional workplace rights in all employing offices.

This is something private and public employers must do, and, by law, these notices of workplace rights must include where an employee can turn when a violation occurs. But the Congressional Accountability Act doesn't mandate that the notices be posted. A 2008-09 Congressional Management Foundation survey showed that the majority of the 892 respondents didn't know their rights under the Congressional Accountability Act, nor did they realize that the Office of Compliance was the place to contact with an allegation.

3) Give the Office of Compliance General Counsel the authority to investigate and litigate claims of retaliation against congressional employees.

The House, the Senate, and many legislative branch facilities are inspected periodically for safety and health hazards. But there are limited resources to do so, prompting inspections to focus on places and operations that have the highest threat of injury or death.

"Because we are not thoroughly inspecting all facilities at least once each Congress," the report states, "it becomes even more vital that Legislative Branch employees step forward to report safety and health violations."

But the report identifies a problem: It's unlikely that workers will come forward without protections against retaliation. In the private sector, workers file complaints of retaliation with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Then, the Labor Department's Office of the Solicitor can seek a settlement and file civil action in U.S. District Court. In the legislative branch, the employee incurs the cost of investigating and litigating claims. That's why the report recommends granting the Office of Compliance General Counsel the ability to investigate and file complaints of retaliation with the office.

4) Grant whistle-blower protections to congressional employees.

The Office of Compliance has received this question over and over again: What are a legislative branch employee's rights after disclosing alleged violations of the law, abuses, or mismanagement? Currently, congressional employees do not have protection from retaliation from their employer.

The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects federal workers in the executive branch. And other laws, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, grant protections to those in the private sector.

5) This one's a bit different. The Office of Compliance wants its name changed.

The proposed name, the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, would more accurately reflect the office's job. And, the report states, it would make it easier for employees and the public to understand what the office actually does.