Sexual harassment in state government is likely costing Maine millions

Sexual harassment in state government could be costing Maine taxpayers millions in employee turnover and lost productivity, according to MECEP analysis.

This week, the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee will consider LD 1842, a bill to require more stringent sexual harassment training for legislators. The initiative is partly a response to the #MeToo movement, which has exposed the prevalence of harassment in all walks of life around the country. This exposure has resulted in high profile departures of figures in entertainment, media, and politics. Several legislators and government employees in other states have resigned or been fired because of sexual harassment allegations.

At an earlier hearing related to LD 1842, Sarah Bigney of the Maine AFL-CIO relayed a series of disturbing accounts from Mainers who had experienced harassment or sexual assault while working with or around government officials. These Maine state employees, lobbyists and legislators are far from alone, if studies of federal government employees are any indication.

While state level data on the cost of sexual harassment in the public workforce doesn’t exist, we can turn to the federal government as a good analog. State employees have similar protections as their federal counterparts and are exposed to similar power dynamics in the workplace.

Extrapolating federal research to the state level indicates that Maine could be losing millions of dollars as a result sexual harassment and related behaviors.

The Merit Performance Systems Board, or MPSB, is an agency that oversees protections for federal employees. It has conducted a series of studies on sexual harassment in the federal workforce and its most recent report, released in 1994, found that 44% of women and 19% of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault in the prior two years. That’s likely a conservative estimate, given what we know about the reluctance of victims to report abuse. A taskforce convened by the Equal Opportunities Commission found some research putting the figure as high as 85% of women.

The MPSB’s 1994 report analyzed the cost of sexual harassment to the federal government. Those costs totaled $277 million annually in inflation-adjusted 2018 dollars. At the scale of the Maine state government, MECEP estimates the same trends would cost the state – and ultimately Maine taxpayers – $3.4 million every year, including:

  • $260,000 from additional turnover. The MPSB study showed that 4% of federal employees had quit their jobs, been fired, or transferred to another department because of sexual harassment. When an employee leaves, there are significant costs associated with retraining a new hire. One estimate, by the Center for American Progress, puts those costs at 20% of the new employee’s annual salary.
  • $160,000 from paid sick leave. Eight percent of federal employees reported taking extra sick leave to cope with the physical and emotional effects of sexual harassment.
  • $3 million in lost individual and group productivity. Even though only 10% of victims reported that their productivity suffered after experiencing harassment in the federal workplace, those losses alone were one of the largest costs of harassment to the employer. Added to that are the even larger productivity losses suffered by their coworkers. Even when no formal complaint is filed, coworkers and colleagues are often aware of inappropriate behavior in the workplace, and it affects the morale and productivity of most workers.

This $3.4 million cost to Maine taxpayers does not include many other costs to the employee themselves, and society at large. Those include lost wages from unpaid leave, and the wage hit many take when they are forced to quit their job. Research also shows significant health impacts from being sexually harassed, primarily through increased stress and depression. Victims of sexual assault often develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These conditions further impact victims’ quality of life, and economic stability. In doing so, they also reduce the strength of the overall economy, and impact all of us.

Sexual harassment is a serious problem everywhere. Just because there have been few formal complaints in state government in recent years does not mean the problem is not occurring in Maine. LD 1842 is a modest step in the right direction.