Women Allege Harassment and Abuse on Forest Service Firefighting Crews

Women Allege Harassment and Abuse on Forest Service Firefighting Crews
19 September 2014

published by www.nytimes.com

USA — Current and former female firefighters of the United States Forest Service have filed a complaint with the Department of Agriculture alleging that they suffered job discrimination, harassment and sexual abuse at the hands of male co-workers and that top agency officials failed to stop it.

The women said the complaint, the first step in a potential class-action lawsuit, was filed late last month on behalf of hundreds of women who worked in the Forest Service’s Region 5, which encompasses more than 20 million acres in 18 national forests in California. The seven women who are the lead complainants said they faced retaliation when they reported the offenses to superiors.

The complaint was the latest in a number of race and gender disputes in the Agriculture Department, the parent agency of the Forest Service. In recent years the department has settled a class-action suit brought by Native American farmers, offered payments to Hispanic and female farmers who alleged discrimination and approved a $1.15 billion settlement with black farmers, decades after the farmers said that they were denied loans and subject to racial discrimination in agriculture programs.

In response to the firefighters, a Forest Service official said the agency would review the complaint and was focused on correcting any problems. “The Forest Service takes these and all allegations of civil rights violations very seriously and is committed to providing a work environment that is free of harassment and discrimination,” said Lenise Lago, the Forest Service’s deputy chief of business operations.

But advocates for past complainants said problems remain.

“There is something about the culture at the agency, maybe because so many of its programs are in rural areas, where most of the offices are staffed by white men who think this is acceptable behavior,” said John Boyd, a Virginia farmer and president of the National Black Farmers Association, who led the fight for black farmer compensation. “The Obama administration has tried its best to deal with this issue, but it’s entrenched because the bureaucrats outlast administrations.”

One of the current complainants, Alicia Dabney, a former firefighter in the Sequoia National Forest in Centerville, Calif., said in an interview that she was the subject of repeated verbal abuse and physical taunts. “It was a frat boy atmosphere,” said Ms. Dabney, who was usually the only woman on her 20-person crew. “You are often isolated because where you work is so remote.”

Ms. Dabney said that her supervisor, who is still employed by the Forest Service, put her in a chokehold and tried to rape her in 2012. In another instance, she said, fliers with the words “Alicia Dabney is a whore” were left on the floor of the fire station.

She said that after she reported the harassment, the Forest Service fired her in 2012, citing what her superiors said was her failure to disclose her past criminal record on her job application. Ms. Dabney said that the agency had long known about her record and that “this was dredged up after I complained.”

Darlene Hall, another complainant, who is a still a Forest Service firefighter, said that she had been subjected to abusive language from some of the men she supervised. “I had one instance where a man who worked under me came into my office and just started cursing at me,” she said. “He was threatening, and I was afraid because you’re out there alone.” Ms. Hall said that she reported the incident to supervisors but that nothing was done and she was denied promotions as a result.

Asked to respond to the allegations of Ms. Dabney and Ms. Hall, the Forest Service said that it was reviewing their complaints.

Agency officials acknowledged that there had been past discrimination problems in Region 5 but said they had eased in recent years. Discrimination findings fell from 12 last year to one so far this year, they said.

The current gender discrimination complaint is similar to ones filed in the 1970s and 1990s by female workers in Region 5 who said they were denied promotions and harassed by male co-workers. As part of the settlements stemming from those complaints, the Agriculture Department required the Forest Service in California to hire more women and to put in place civil rights enforcement programs, sensitivity training and a unit to investigate and resolve sexual harassment and hostile environment claims.

According to the agency, women now represent about 12 percent of the fire service in Region 5 and nearly 24 percent of the fire leadership positions. Four of nine regional fire directors are women, including the director for Region 5.

The complaint filed with the Agriculture Department is the first step in what could be a long process. The department has 180 days to investigate and potentially settle the claim, but if there is no resolution it will go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for another investigation and potential settlement. If there is no resolution at the commission, the complaint could go to federal court.

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