Fairfax County firefighter sexually harassed, authorities find

A former Fairfax County firefighter was inappropriately touched by a captain in 2017 while still employed by the department and was transferred to a less than desirable job because she described the behavior as assault, a federal anti-employment agency found Has.

But the Fairfax County Department has rejected the remedy proposed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), despite its promise to stamp out sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The proposal included improving efforts to combat sexual harassment, new training and a $150,000 cash reward.

The move surprised the former firefighter and her attorney, as the department faced a spate of lawsuits from women and the 2016 suicide of a firefighter who was being bullied online by commentators who seemed familiar with the department. The death of Nicole Mittendorff attracted nationwide attention.

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“The county hasn’t tried to right the wrong, to say, ‘How can we improve?’ ‘ the firefighter said in an interview. “There’s nothing. I was kind of hung out to dry.”

The woman asked not to be identified, citing the possibility of retribution in her current job in law enforcement, another male-dominated field.

The fire service said in a statement it had demoted the captain, but declined to discuss the reasons for rejecting the EEOC’s proposed resolution, citing ongoing litigation in the case. Fire Chief John S. Butler said in a statement that the department has “worked hard” over the past several years to improve its culture.

“We have an ongoing focus on promoting and implementing initiatives to promote a healthy work environment that focuses on inclusion and equality, and constantly evaluate our progress,” said Butler. “We know there is room for improvement and will continue to work to advance the department.”

When the EEOC finds that an employee has been discriminated against, it proposes a remedy known as a “conciliation agreement” that gives the employer the opportunity to voluntarily address the issue. The employer has the right to accept the agreement, reject it or make a counter-proposal.

Gillian L. Thomas, a senior ACLU attorney representing the firefighter, said in her experience it is unusual for an employer to directly refuse an arbitration agreement. Thomas said they are usually a starting point in negotiations to reach a mutually acceptable agreement.

Because Fairfax County rejected the proposed agreement, the Department of Justice (DOJ) can now initiate civil litigation against the Department to seek relief if it so chooses. In the late 1970s, a Justice Department lawsuit alleging racial and gender discrimination in the department led to decades of surveillance by a federal judge that only ended late last year. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.

The current case began when the former firefighter was a firefighter academy recruit, according to her 2017 EEOC complaint.

In December of that year, the woman joined other recruits on a pub crawl to raise funds at a bar in Reston. Also attending was Captain Jeff Loach, who at the time was an instructor at the academy and secretary of the department’s union.

According to the former firefighter’s ad, Loach touched her in an all-too-familiar manner throughout the evening, telling her he had been so rude to another firefighter that “she could probably admit it.” [my] house,” which the woman took to mean that the other firefighter could have sued him for harassment.

As the woman exited the bar, the woman alleged in the complaint, Loach came up behind her and inappropriately touched her buttocks.

Afterwards, the woman said Loach laughed and said, “If you need help getting through recruit school right now, you know who to call,” the complaint reads.

The woman felt there was nothing she could turn to as Loach was a firefighter academy teacher and, according to her complaint, a senior member of the firefighters’ union. The woman graduated from the academy and became a full-time firefighter in March 2018.

In September 2018, the woman was working at the fire academy, helping with exam tests and training, when Loach approached her and asked if she thought touching her at the bar was an assault. the complaint alleges. The woman replied that she did and Loach walked away, according to complaint.

About 35 minutes later, the woman received a call from a manager telling her that according to the complaint, she was being transferred to a position at headquarters. The complaint further alleges that she was not given a reason and none of her supervisors on duty that day knew why she was transferred.

The woman’s new job, according to the complaint, was answering a phone that seldom rang and sharpening pencils on one occasion. The woman was eventually returned to her old job at the fire academy.

She filed the EEOC complaint in October 2018.

Loach and his union, IAFF Local 2068, did not respond Calls, text or email messages Please comment on the case.

Fairfax County attorneys wrote in their response to the woman’s EEOC filing that she first reported the sexual harassment in September 2018. Fire chiefs immediately began investigating the incident and reported it to a Fairfax County human rights agency.

The fire department’s investigation found that Loach did not tell the truth about what happened and his behavior was indecent, while the Fairfax County Department found that Loach had inappropriately touched the woman and violated the county’s sexual harassment policy , as evidenced by the documents filed in the EEOC case.

As a result of the investigations, Loach was demoted to a non-officer rank, according to the district Response to the EEOC Complaint. The Fairfax County agency found that the woman’s transfer was not in retaliation. According to the fire department, it was a mix-up of personnel.

“The department took immediate action upon being made aware of the incident and followed all relevant policies and procedures, resulting in an immediate staff action,” said Tony Castrilli, Fairfax County director of public affairs.

The woman denied in her filing that the department acted quickly to address the issues, saying it took months.

The county, in response to the woman’s EEOC complaint, argued that it should not be upheld because the window to take action had passed, the alleged sexual harassment took place at an event outside of work, and the woman had failed to prove that her transfer was in retaliation. The EEOC rejected these arguments.

The Fairfax County Fire Department has been sued six times since 2005 for alleged sexual harassment and discrimination. In 2016, Nicole Mittendorff’s suicide focused on the department’s treatment of women. In 2018, one of Fairfax Fire’s most senior women resigned from a post to help other women in the department, saying she tolerated harassment of women.

A review by county officials released in 2018 found that the department had issues with leadership, communication, and the status of paramedics, but had no widespread issues with the treatment of women within its ranks.

Richard Bowers, the former fire chief, retired in 2018 amid turmoil over the department’s treatment of women. Butler, the new boss, has promised changes.

The former firefighter said there’s yet to be a change coming for many of Fairfax County’s female firefighters. Her experiences led her to leave the department in late 2020, taking a large pay cut and losing benefits to start fresh in a new job.

“It’s annoying because I had a lot of goals and aspirations to do a good job there,” the woman said. “It seemed like a bright future, and then it collapsed.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2022/07/10/fairfax-firefighter-sexual-harassment/ Fairfax County firefighter sexually harassed, authorities find

Dustin Huang

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