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Lawsuit from federal agent unveils harassment in workplace

A lawsuit has exposed difficulties that some federal employees endure when they attempt to report what they perceive as sexual harassment in the workplace.

A woman who for three decades worked as a special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said that once she was assigned to delve into a report of sexual harassment as an internal affairs investigator, trouble ensued.

She told Bloomberg Businessweek that in 2013, another longtime ATF special agent told her as part of her investigation that a male supervisor had harassed her and others. The result of her investigation showed that the supervisor inappropriately discussed sexual situations on the job, put his hand up a woman's skirt and bullied women on the staff.

As the investigator sought to look further into allegations of misconduct against the man, she was pushed back, she said, by the man's supervisor. The ATF took the case away from the woman, who said she subsequently was turned down for two job transfers and demoted to a lesser position.

The #MeToo movement seems to be less visible in federal government than it is in the private sector. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, there are more than 2 million federal workers but approximately just 500 complaints each year of sexual harassment on the job.

It often isn't easy to file harassment claims in the private sector, but those employers often are willing to close the case more quickly and have insurance to fund settlements.

Federal workers who file complaints have a much slower path to a settlement. Their process includes a lengthy government investigation, mediation, the burden of proving they were discriminated against based on their gender, age or religion and a long wait for administrative judges to act.

In this case reviewed by the ATF investigator, it sat untouched until some of the women who had complained approached Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice on their behalf. About a week later, the Justice Department ruled in favor of the woman who had reported the harassment.

The woman received a $533,000 settlement, according to the Boston Globe.

All employees are entitled to a harassment-free workplace, as well as the right to report wrongdoings without fear. An attorney with experience in federal employment law can assist in such cases.

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