Washington, D.C. – Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) today highlighted new findings by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) emphasizing the need for stronger sexual assault and harassment prevention efforts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The findings come in a report titled Sexual Assault and Harassment: NOAA Has Made Substantial Progress in Prevention and Response but Could Further Improve Its Processes that Chair Grijalva requested with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
NOAA employs approximately 12,000 federal employees and nearly 10,000 contractors and affiliated staff at more than 700 sites across the United States. Many of the agency’s employees work in remote locations and aboard research and survey vessels that may be privately owned or operated. GAO found today that working in remote, isolated, decentralized workplaces puts NOAA employees at increased risk for sexual assault and harassment, and that NOAA’s homogenous workforce and worksites with significant power disparities exacerbate the problem.
In 2014, multiple whistleblowers alerted members of Congress to a culture of pervasive sexual assault and harassment at NOAA. In response to those complaints, Congress included a requirement for NOAA to develop a policy on the prevention of and response to sexual assault and harassment in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017.
In addition to developing a new policy, NOAA developed a strategic plan, established a Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment Council, hired a full-time program manager for the new Workplace Violence Prevention Response Program, and set up a victim advocates program to provide crisis intervention and support.
Despite the agency’s important progress, today’s report highlights several areas in which the agency needs improvement. The report makes six key recommendations:
- Future updates to NOAA’s policy should be consistent with all legal requirements.
- Senior agency leaders at NOAA should oversee all disciplinary actions for sexual assault and sexual harassment related misconduct before those actions are finalized.
- NOAA should provide more specific and readily accessible information on its website, through FAQs and in staff training.
- Training for supervisors and managers should include more NOAA-specific information, such as how to report allegations up the chain of command, how to identify and minimize potential risk factors, explanations of NOAA’s confidentiality rules, and the consequences for failing to fulfill this staff’s supervisory responsibilities.
- There should be more information how the agency is responding to allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment, as appropriate.
- The central tracking system under development should collect and appropriately document consistent data.
In NOAA’s response to GAO—included in the full report—the agency agreed with all recommendations and indicated progress in addressing those recommendations.
“The employees and contractors at NOAA, many of whom are women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, deserve a workplace where they feel safe and where they have support and proper recourse if needed,” Grijalva said today. “For far too long, that has not been the reality for many of the employees at NOAA. I am pleased the Biden administration is committed to keeping progress moving in the right direction.”
The Natural Resources Committee held an Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on the issue in February of 2020, during which NOAA’s former Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere acknowledged, “More remains to be done.”
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