California’s female firefighters allege sexual harassment

Posted in Sexual Harassment on October 24, 2014

The world certainly seems to be getting smaller, primarily due to advancements in communications technology. It is now practical for companies to foster collaboration between employees spread out across the country and the globe.

That being said, there are still some jobs that come with a considerable amount of isolation, both from coworkers and the rest of society. In California, for instance, many employees of the U.S. Forest Service are spread across millions of acres of national forests and other wilderness areas. This relative isolation can feel freeing, but it can also create conditions in which female workers are at risk for being sexually harassed and assaulted.

Recently, female firefighters (current and past) of the U.S. Forest Service filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is the Forest Service’s parent agency. The seven women, who brought complaints on behalf of themselves and hundreds of other female firefighters, allege that agency officials failed to adequately respond to allegations of sexual harassment, sexual abuse and gender discrimination.

The female firefighters work or worked in the Forest Service’s Region 5, which includes more than 20 million acres of national forests in California. These women are a minority to begin with, and the isolated nature of their work creates opportunistic conditions for sexual harassment and sexual abuse. In some cases, 20-person crews may have just one or two women on them.

The complainants say that they have been sexually harassed or worse, and that the U.S. Forest Service not only failed to intervene, it actively retaliated against the women for reporting harassment and abuse.

One woman who reported harassment was fired a short time later. Her supervisors alleged that she had failed to disclose a previous criminal conviction on her job application. The woman says her employer had known about her record for a long time but “dredged up” the allegation as an excuse to fire her. Another woman says she has been denied promotions because she complained about feeling physically threatened by abusive language from her male coworkers.

The USDA was given 180 days to investigate the complaints and perhaps resolve them through a settlement. If the agency fails to do this, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will step in. Hopefully, this matter will finally be addressed substantively and adequately on behalf of the women who do this important work.

Source: The New York Times, “Women Allege Harassment and Abuse on Forest Service Firefighting Crews,” Ron Nixon, Sept. 19, 2014