You’re Not Alone: Speaking Up for Harassed Firefighters

Posted on May 13, 2019

The culture within fire stations often subjects employees to harassment and discrimination, and gives harassed employees no comfort in coming forward to report their abuse. If you have suffered harassment on the job as a firefighter, you are not alone. Resources are available to help you.

Checking Every High-Risk Box

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has identified several risk factors for harassment in the workplace, and virtually all of these exist in firehouses. Firstly, firehouse staff typically lack diversity. Data from the National Fire Protection Association shows that firefighters are predominately white males, with more than 95% of firefighters reportedly male, and over 81% white. It is not difficult to imagine a situation where women or minorities could feel uncomfortable in an environment lacking diversity.

Secondly, the EEOC reports that firehouses frequently do not conform to social norms due to the inherently aggressive nature of the job.  Firefighters perform a physically demanding, high-risk job that requires hopping in a truck and speeding off to an emergency at a moment’s notice. “Rough and tumble,” or crude behavior can be common in environments where regularly exerting strength is expected. This aggressive or competitive behavior can lead to abusive remarks or humor aimed in the direction of women and minorities. Employees with time on their hands can be a risk too. It is common for firefighters to have downtime between calls where harassment can be seen as a way to pass the time.  

Fire departments have a responsibility to prevent harassment and discrimination in the workplace. If a department fails, victims can exercise their legal rights with protections against retaliation. Retaliation occurs when employees who report harassment or discrimination experience backlash or risk losing their job.

Know Your Rights as a Firefighter

In a perfect world, every employer would have a clear, well-run harassment and discrimination policy with options for reporting and ensuring those reports do not lead to retaliation. Your union may also provide an effective resolution process, but unfortunately, this is not always the case. Leaders in your organization might fail to treat you fairly; however, in most situations, reporting harassment according to workplace policy is the proper first step.

If an employer’s internal policies fail to address a harassment issue, then it may be time to file a complaint with the government. There are two main options:

  1. The federal EEOC, which enforces the Civil Rights Act and other laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, and disability.
  2. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), which has authority to address discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation and more.

Some issues, like sexual orientation discrimination, are only protected in California, but some claims could be brought to either agency. 

It’s important not to wait to come forward with harassment and discrimination claims. In California, all claims with the DFEH must be reported within one year of the date you were discriminated against. Under the EEOC, claims must be filed within 300 days. A knowledgeable lawyer can help you select the right venue and maximize your chances of success, often at no out-of-pocket expense to you. Filing a lawsuit is another option if the agency process fails. 

McNicholas & McNicholas Can Help

We have earned a reputation as leaders in the fight against harassment and discrimination in the public sector workforce, particularly in protecting police officers and firefighters. You don’t have to silently tolerate harassment and discrimination, especially if your workplace has historically retaliated against employees. If you think you need legal help, call McNicholas & McNicholas, LLP at 310-474-1582 for a free evaluation of your situation.  


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