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Senators Sullivan and Schatz Work to Pass NOAA Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Legislation Out of Commerce Committee

Washington, D.C.  – Today, the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved S. 2206, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Act.   U.S. Senators Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) introduced the legislation with bipartisan support from U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), John Thune (R-S.D.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

The bill directs NOAA to develop and adopt policies to protect its employees from sexual harassment and assault, contains provisions which update personnel practices for the NOAA Corps, and reauthorizes funding to maintain the nation’s nautical charts, with an emphasis on the importance of up-to-date survey information for the Arctic.

NOAA currently functions under the Department of Commerce’s sexual harassment policy and does not have its own specific procedures in place.  This poses problems for the many NOAA employees and contractors who serve at sea or in remote areas.

Earlier this year, Dr. Julia O’Hern, a NOAA contractor, wrote about her experiences in the Washington Post as she sought a fair review of her claims of sexual harassment.  Without clear procedures, Dr. O’Hern faced challenge after challenge trying to seek justice.  Her story can be found here.

The legislation approved by the Commerce Committee today would address cases like Dr. O’Hern’s by requiring NOAA to put such policies and procedures in place within one year of enactment. 

“I was shocked to learn that NOAA lacked their own policies to address sexual assault and harassment,” said Senator Sullivan. “Regrettably, these issues are a problem, and having tailored procedures to respond is essential, particularly for those personnel—many of whom work for NOAA in Alaska—doing important work on ships at sea or in other relatively isolated conditions. This legislation also reauthorizes funding to ensure that we have accurate and up-to-date nautical charts and coastal maps – which is critically important throughout the country, but especially in areas like Alaska – as we continue to move forward with new transportation lanes in the Arctic.”

“Geographic isolation—whether on a ship at sea, or at a remote duty post—magnifies the harm from sexual harassment and assault,” said Senator Schatz.  “NOAA employees face both.  I hope this legislation prevents future incidents, and brings justice for victims.”

“The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Act will bring common sense reforms for the employees of NOAA. I am pleased that the Commerce Committee unanimously passed this legislation,” said Senator Thune.

“This is a long overdue move and one that will create an around-the-clock hotline for victims to report incidents of sexual assault and harassment,” said Senator Nelson.

“Victims of sexual abuse and harassment should not be forced to endure insufficient reporting and support programs in the midst of recovering from their experiences.  This bill ensures that victims have reliable access to advocates who can provide a safe place and needed guidance in a difficult time.  I applaud the Senate Commerce Committee for recognizing the need for these important reforms to protect and empower victims of abuse and harassment at NOAA,” said Senator Grassley.

“We must do everything we can to prevent sexual assault and harassment, and support the victims of these crimes - no matter who they are, where they live or where they work. This legislation requires NOAA to take steps to prevent sexual harassment and assault and ensure those affected by these crimes are supported at all levels,” said Senator Cantwell.

The bill requires NOAA to develop policies to protect its approximately 12,000 employees with measures such as: 

  • Clear procedures for reporting incidents, including accommodations for assistance after hours, and for remote and isolated duty posts;
  • Establishment of advocates to assist and support victims through the reporting and adjudication process;
  • Protection for the rights of accusers and the accused, including changes of position and location; and
  • Annual reporting on the status of implementation, and the incidents addressed under the policies.

The bill also updates operations and procedures for the NOAA Officer Corps, which is the smallest branch of the nation’s uniformed services.  Officers operate ships, fly aircraft, facilitate research projects, conduct diving operations, and serve in key staff positions throughout NOAA.  In the event of war, they support U.S. military operations across the globe with their expertise in environmental intelligence and forecasting.

Finally, the bill reauthorizes funding to update and maintain the nation’s nautical charts to support both recreational boating and maritime transportation and shipping.  These services are particularly important after major storms to re-open ports and get commerce flowing and aid with response efforts.

The full text of the legislation can be found here.