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California women firefighters claim abuse, discrimination

It wasn't unusual decades ago for workers to tolerate harassment or abuse to preserve their paychecks. Sometimes seeking a solution was worse than putting up with the torment. Responses to complaints frequently included a retaliatory demotion, transfer or termination rather than support for the harmed worker.

Employment laws are in place today that weren't around to protect past generations. However, the problems experienced by workers have not disappeared entirely due to legislation. Los Angeles workers continue to suffer from employer and co-worker mistreatment, but many no longer remain silent.

A discrimination grievance, representing hundreds of female California firefighters, was filed recently with the Department of Agriculture. The complaint is led by seven firefighters, formerly or presently employed in 18 national forests that make up Region 5, where about 12 percent of the firefighting force is female. The workers claim they were harassed and sometimes physically abused by male co-workers.

The women stated male U.S. Forest Service co-workers commonly engaged in sexual harassment and other illegal job behaviors. One complainant said she was frequently the lone female in a Sequoia National Forest "frat boy" crew, stationed in remote areas.

The ex-firefighter said she was fired, after reporting her former supervisor attacked and attempted to rape her two years ago. The reason given for termination was concealment of a criminal record, which the female firefighter said was common knowledge at the agency.

The firefighters' grievance accuses male workers of retaliation, echoing charges made by Region 5 women firefighters in past decades. Settlements resolved the earlier claims, as well as more recent discrimination cases brought by members of other protected classes.

Harmed workers have the option of filing solitary complaints or lawsuits about employer misconduct. Cases can be strengthened when several similar claims are grouped together in a class action. It's advisable to have an employment attorney assess a claim before taking any action.

Source: New York Times, "Women Allege Harassment and Abuse on Forest Service Firefighting Crews" Ron Nixon, Sep. 19, 2014

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