Cook County workers could soon have a new way to fight sexual harassment.
County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard, an independent watchdog for the county’s 22,000 employees, is in the final stages of hiring an investigator who will focus on cases involving sexual harassment and other forms of employment discrimination.
The county board funded the job last fall in light of the national #MeToo movement, while eliminating more than 1,000 vacant jobs and laying off hundreds of workers to close a more than $300 million budget gap. Commissioner Richard Boykin (D-Oak Park) spearheaded the investigator role, a rare add to Blanchard’s office given the county’s financial constraints.
“We thought that it was an important thing to do as an acknowledgement to the fact that there is a problem in big organizations with sexual harassment,” Boykin said.
Blanchard, who was appointed in 2008, oversees a staff of 15 people and an annual budget of nearly $2 million. His investigators include former federal agents and prosecutors who aim to root out waste and corruption in Cook County government. The new investigator will earn about $80,000 a year, look into complaints involving county workers and contractors who do business with the county, and help train employees about sexual harassment.
Blanchard’s office completes up to 400 cases a year. The most common complaint is employee misconduct: think theft, accepting a bribe, or punching in and then leaving to go out for breakfast.
Blanchard said he doesn’t get many sexual harassment complaints, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening more often, he said.
“Sexual harassment can come in so many different forms that I don’t think everybody — all employees — understand exactly what it is, and importantly, what they can do when they encounter it,” Blanchard said.
Currently, county employees can report harassment to designated officers. Those officers report to the county’s Bureau of Human Resources. Becky Schlikerman, a county spokeswoman, said officers make independent decisions and are not influenced by county board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office. They also don’t have subpoena power like Blanchard.
Still, Blanchard’s hands are somewhat tied. He can only recommend that alleged harassers get fired.
Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @kschorsch.