Making a difference for women in the workplace


As women across the country continue to speak out against sexual harassment, assault and discrimination on the job, here in Orange County government we are committed to make progress toward creating a safer and more equitable work environment.

And working together, we can and should continue to do more.

This column will highlight three local developments, each impacting this effort which we have jointly undertaken: a reassuring moment of justice, a policy aimed at protecting all workers and an opportunity to create a more fair and safe workplace for women.

The first development came last month in yet another court ruling related to former Santa Ana City Councilmember Carlos Bustamante. As you are probably aware, Bustamante was previously convicted of sexually assaulting several women who worked for him in county government.

The press has widely covered Bustamante’s story — the botched internal investigation, a failure by certain county officials to act swiftly to protect the women who were assaulted, and the eventual prosecution and conviction that sent Bustamante to jail.

But what has not been widely discussed is the aftermath. Following Bustamante’s conviction, a state law was passed prohibiting public employees who are convicted of felonies from collecting pension dollars accrued in the years following their criminal actions. Upon learning about the law, trustees of the Orange County Employees Retirement System voted to slash Bustamante’s pension.

We were both present at the meeting when the vote was held and publicly testified in favor of reducing Bustamante’s retirement benefit — one small step toward justice for the women who had been denied justice for so long.

But Bustamante wasn’t content to leave well enough alone. He instead appealed the retirement board’s decision in Superior Court. Just this past month, a Superior Court judge ruled to uphold the pension reduction. It was a quiet victory in what has been a very painful ordeal for Bustamante’s victims.

In the years since Bustamante’s conviction, it’s become clear to each of us that there is much more work to be done in this area.

For example, the county still doesn’t have a policy aimed at protecting workers in the event there is a romantic relationship in the workplace between a subordinate and a manager. Far too often, these relationships end badly for rank-and-file workers, who are sometimes transferred or fired when the relationship doesn’t work out. Further, these relationships often foster favoritism or are perceived as doing so by co-workers, which has a chilling effect on efforts to protect workers.

To address this issue, our offices have been working together to develop a proposed policy designed to protect all workers in these situations. The policy has been adopted by the various employee groups and the county CEO has signed it into effect and will end the supervisor/subordinate supervision workplace situation. And we continue working through details to ensure the county adequately tracks complaints and investigations into alleged violations of the policy.

Finally, there are many underlying factors in a workplace that can result in a culture where harassment can flourish. One major factor is related to power dynamics. When men hold the majority of high-paying jobs and are paid more than women in the workplace, that is an example of a power dynamic that tips the playing field against women.

A recent California audit found that Orange County is grappling with a pay gap that is wider than any of the other counties surveyed — a result of systemic discrimination that has persisted over decades. In fact, even though the county workforce is predominantly female, the majority of those in the highest-paying positions continue to be men.

As we work toward making a safer, more just workplace for women in this county, this is another important factor we must lead the way to address. Orange County can and should be a model employer in this area. We have made some significant and noteworthy progress, and together, we intend to continue to work to develop a county workplace culture that is safe, respectful and fair to all.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: April 11, 2018