A Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue firefighter filed a lawsuit on June 24 against the district alleging gender-based discrimination and harassment.
According to the complaint filed in Kitsap County Superior Court, the female employee has “experienced harassing, demeaning and discriminatory treatment on the basis of her gender” since she began work with the district as a volunteer in 2002.
The alleged harassment and discrimination ranged from the firefighter, who became an employee in 2004, being denied promotional opportunities, being prohibited from using a bathroom while pregnant, and discriminatory comments and displays based on her gender. In the complaint, several members of CKFR leadership are named, including three chiefs and a captain. The captain who was named has been accused of prior complaints of inappropriate behavior but has remained employed, according to the complaint.
The complaint alleges the plaintiff was put under the captain’s supervision, during which time he made inappropriate comments to her, such as asking her to change in front of him and offering her foot massages. The plaintiff met with the department’s human resources department to discuss this harassment and was reassigned from the captain’s unit, after which the captain was eventually reassigned to her station.
Although the two employees worked on different shifts, the complaint states that he would come early to his shift, overlapping with hers, and also come to work on his days off when she was working. Other employees who work with the plaintiff and the captain have reported to the plaintiff “that he has not learned his lesson and apparently does not care about his conduct towards women in the office,” according to the complaint.
CKFR Chief John Oliver said via email that sexual harassment has not been a concern for the fire district in the past.
The accused employee sought legal representation after a complaint and an investigation into claims against the captain ultimately did not effect lasting change.
“She just felt like her attempts to resolve this internally were just useless,” Anne-Marie Sargent, the firefighter’s attorney, said.
When asked if sexual harassment is now a concern for the fire district, Oliver said, “No, which is why we are taking this very seriously. We try to encourage a culture of reporting these types of incidents, and investigate all complaints that are filed or brought to our attention.”
The suit comes after the firm representing the attorney filed a demand letter and a tort claim, neither of which resulted in a resolution.
Other incidents of harassment detailed in the suit include an incident in November 2020 when the firefighter arrived for an overtime shift at a different station with three new male employees. After inquiring what dorm was available, she was told to use a dorm where she found a zucchini, lubricant and a note to “enjoy.” She left the premises after reporting the incident to the lieutenant.
Human Resources responded that the display was not left for her, according to the complaint.
When the plaintiff was pregnant, she was told not to use a bathroom in the district administration building, since she would be a “distraction” to other employees. She was then directed to use a different public restroom further away.
The complaint states that the plaintiff has worked unsuccessfully with district management to address disparities, including helping to develop a pregnancy leave policy that the district has not considered or adopted.
After an article about the suit appeared in the Kitsap Sun, Sargent said her client has received messages of support.
Sargent said the Washington state discrimination statute entitles attorneys to ask for wage losses, emotional distress, damages and attorney fees on behalf of their clients. But in a settlement, there is more flexibility in what could be asked for, including better sexual harassment and equity training, and termination of certain employees.
“I don’t usually tell an employer what to do with their personnel, but I think in this instance, termination of certain employees should certainly be on the table,” Sargent said.
According to CKFR’s Harassment and Workplace Violence Policy and Complaint Procedure, “Misconduct constituting harassment, discrimination or retaliation will be dealt with appropriately. Any employee engaging in improper harassing behavior will be subject to disciplinary action, including the possible termination of employment.”
When asked what kind of cultural norms the fire district establishes for employees related to the treatment of employees based on gender, Oliver said that his district had recognized the need for diversity, equity and inclusion training, and had started this process in 2020. The pandemic delayed this, but Oliver said the first training session is scheduled for mid-August.
Sargent said her client just wants changes.
“Sometimes companies or employers or entities … don’t make changes until it hurts,” Sargent said.
The attorneys representing the employee said they are waiting for a response from CKFR to their complaint.