(Originally published March 2, 2018)
The PBS program Newshour aired a story Thursday night reporting on interviews with dozens of U.S. Forest Service female employees, many of them firefighters. The women gave numerous examples of gender discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, and assault by crew members and supervisors. Three women said they were raped by fellow employees. The video below is a 12-minute version of the piece. The link above has more details.
Below is an excerpt from the PBS story:
In the private sector, employees can file discrimination complaints directly with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an independent agency tasked with investigating workplace discrimination. But federal employees, including those in the Forest Service, must first contact their agency’s EEO counselor, who starts an investigation and then makes a decision with the agency on how to handle the complaint. Federal employees dissatisfied with the results can appeal that decision to the EEOC or pursue a case in federal district court.
Many of the women interviewed described the reporting process as long, complicated, and never ending in a satisfying conclusion. Investigations can take years and stretch into hundreds of pages, especially if there is more than one allegation.
The EEOC said the average processing time for all complaints in fiscal year 2016 was 464 days, and that it’s exploring ways to shorten the process. The Forest Service’s new hotline, which is staffed by contractors specifically trained to handle sexual harassment, aims to more efficiently respond to these claims.
The Forest Service, for its part, said it updated its anti-harassment policy ahead of the [December 2016 congressional] hearing, in September 2016, and launched the national hotline the following November. Since the new anti-harassment policy was put in place, the agency said, it has received 1,013 reports of harassment, and completed inquiries or investigations in 632 of those cases. Of those, the agency said it found misconduct in 150 cases.
Shawna Legarza, National Fire Director for the USFS
In April, 2017 I talked with Shawna Legarza nine months after she began her job as the National Fire Director for the USFS. I asked if there was an area that she felt strongly about, enough that she would give it special attention, and she said, “Absolutely! I’m trying to make some changes in the workplace environment, I feel very strongly about that. I want to see the agency have a workforce that is completely inclusive of each other … and that people’s voices can be heard, understood, listened to and incorporated into all that we do, and that there is no discrimination of any kind. I am very passionate about that and I want to try to make a difference in the workplace environment for all wildland firefighters, for the Forest Service and other agencies.”
“I talk about,” she said, “having a workforce where everybody comes to work, they’re proud to be there, and included in whatever area they are working in, their voices are heard, they are listened to — free of discrimination, free of bias — it’s just a way of being. We’ve got some new initiatives that we are trying to roll out to the workforce.
Ms. Legarza, we were told, was not available for comment today because government offices in the District of Columbia were closed due to weather. The statement below was issued by Dan Jiron, the Department of Agriculture’s Acting Deputy Undersecretary of Natural Resources and the Environment:
The stories the Forest Service employees shared during the PBS NewsHour piece are important to hear, difficult and heart-wrenching as they may be. Stories like these, which have come to light over the past few years, have underscored that there are elements of sexual harassment in the Forest Service that have existed and continue today. While we have taken significant actions over the past several years to address sexual harassment in the Forest Service, we acknowledge that we have more work to do. These are critical issues that the Forest Service must continue to take on to increase our efforts to protect our fellow employees so they know they can speak up and speak out, without any fear of retaliation or reprisal. Victims must know that there will be accountability for persons who engage in sexual harassment and reprisal. We are committed to our duty to create a workplace that is respectful, rewarding, and above all, a safe place for all employees.
This is not the first time allegations of sexual harassment within the federal firefighting agencies have surfaced. Below are examples between 2014 and 2016, but others regarding the USFS go back much further, to 1972. Some of the recent issues include the National Park Service as well as the USFS.
- In September 2014 seven female wildland firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service filed a complaint against 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.
- In March, 2016 the Huffington Post in a lengthy article by Kathryn Joyce described what appeared to be a stunning culture of serious sexual harassment being virtually tolerated in some locations within the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.
- September 22, 2016 the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard testimony from two employees about harassment in the NPS and the USFS. Kelly Martin, Fire Management Officer at Yosemite National Park, described “..a hostile work environment in Yosemite where dozens of individuals have come forward with personal statements of demoralizing behavior to include acts of bullying, gender bias, and favoritism.” She also described sexual harassment in a previous job when she worked for the USFS.
- Members of that same House Committee and other Senators and Congresspersons, a total of 13, signed a letter on November 10, 2016 requesting that Phyllis K. Fong, the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General, conduct an audit of the USFS to find out if progress has been made after allegations surfaced in 2014 of “sexual misconduct and retaliation in Region 5 [California] of the FS”.
- On December 1, 2016 the committee held another hearing “to address misconduct, sexual harassment, and disparate treatment of women within the U.S. Forest Service”, and, “to examine the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s management of its Office of Civil Rights and handling of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints.” One of the witnesses to testify was Denice Rice, a Fire Prevention Technician on the Eldorado National Forest at El Dorado, California. She told a horrifying story of being harassed for years by her supervisor and then being victimized again with reprisals.
Kelly Martin, Yosemite
Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation Management, has had a 34-year career with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. For the last decade she has served as the Chief of Fire and Aviation Management in the park. She was one of the witnesses who testified at the September 22, 2016 Congressional hearing. We asked her today about her reaction to the March 1 PBS Newshour story:
Most women I have talked to fear coming forward for this very reason [retribution]. People will not believe them. It’s time we start believing them! Most women I know who have been through sexual harassment and hostile working conditions want the toxic behaviors to stop and by coming forward they hope by breaking the silence, working conditions in the federal wildland fire services will be better for their sisters and brothers coming up through the ranks.
NPS as a whole has made significant strides in addressing the need to hold perpetrators accountable. NPS Fire on the other hand only has 3 female Fire Management Officers nationwide. There is a very high drop out rate of women rising through the ranks.
Not just women should be asking this question but our men in leadership positions should be concerned by asking this very same question. Identify the reasons why women drop out and commit to a plan of progressive gender equality in wildland fire. Period!
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick.
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