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They reported sexual harassment. Then the retaliation began

Written by: Federal Practice Group
Written by: Federal Practice Group

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They reported sexual harassment. Then the retaliation began

Michaela Myers said she was first groped by her supervisor after a crew pizza party last summer, shortly after starting a new job as a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service. She was 22 and excited about the job. She had worked out diligently to prepare for the season, running and hiking with a heavy pack. She is from the Pacific Northwest, and had always loved the outdoors and a challenge.

She remembers her supervisor, a Forest Service veteran, offering her beers at a crew member’s house after dinner. He told her he was glad she was on the crew because she was “sexy” and had “a nice ass,” she said. According to her account, he led her to a couch, rubbed her butt as she sat down, and slid his hand between her legs. Myers was shocked and upset, but didn’t stop him. She had heard from other crew members that this manager could fly off the handle, and didn’t want to make a scene.

“You don’t feel like you can say ‘no’ loudly to your supervisor,” she said. “I keep looking back on it and wishing I could have just punched him or something.”

According to Myers, the harassment and groping continued for the rest of the summer. When she confided in a fellow crew member, he told her this was an unfortunate reality for a female firefighter. She had a choice, she recalls him saying: report it and face retaliation, or do nothing and stay in fire.

But in September, after the end of her three-month season in Oregon, Myers had enough. She reported the harassment to the United States Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service’s parent agency. In October, she provided a sworn statement to a USDA investigator detailing all the allegations. At first, Myers found the Human Resource department’s response encouraging. She was optimistic action would be taken. But two months later, the Forest Service sent her a letter that said the investigation was complete, no misconduct had been found, and the case was closed.

Myers was furious.

“This means they don’t believe me that I was sexually harassed,” she said. “Or they don’t care.”

When reached by phone, the manager, who still works for the Forest Service, said he was made aware of the allegations. “I was cleared of all wrongdoing,” he said.

‘We all live in this fear’

Harassment of women in the Forest Service has been a problem for years. As far back as 1972, women have joined together to file class action complaints and lawsuits about gender discrimination and sexual harassment. More recently, in 2016, a congressional hearing was held to address the problem within the Forest Service’s California workforce, which had also been the focus of previous complaints. The PBS NewsHour investigated what’s happened since then, and found the problem goes much deeper.

Firefighter Darla Bush said her career “spiraled downhill” after she notified her supervisor that she was pregnant with twins in 2011. Video by Joshua Barajas

In interviews with 34 current and former U.S. Forest Service women, spanning 13 states, the women described a workplace that remains hostile to female employees. They complained of a pattern of gender discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment and assault by crew members and supervisors. Three women said they were raped after-hours by co-workers or interagency firefighters while working for the Forest Service. Many women alleged retaliation after reporting these incidents.

The retaliation they described took different forms: verbal threats, bullying notes, duties stripped, negative performance reviews, and demotions. Myers applied to work another season with the Forest Service and said she received interest from several states, but not Oregon, where she reported the abuse. ‘It’s like I’m on some Oregon blacklist, the Oregon #MeToo blacklist,” she said.

Watch our complete series on harassment and retaliation in the U.S. Forest Service. Video by Lorna Baldwin, Emily Carpeaux and William Brangham

Some women interviewed said they never reported the harassment for fear of retaliation. In a survey of nearly 2,000 Forest Service employees in California, conducted by the USDA Office of Inspector General last summer, the majority of respondents said they knew of the agency’s “zero tolerance” policy for harassment. But the survey, released in February 2018, also showed that most who experienced harassment did not report it, either because they didn’t trust the reporting process, didn’t believe that the process would be confidential, or feared a negative impact on their job.

Seven of the 34 women interviewed asked to remain anonymous for fear of further retaliation. Fear was a common theme in the interviews. One woman said she went to the hospital multiple times for “her nerves” after reporting harassment. Another asked the NewsHour to destroy her interview transcript, because she became too afraid of the consequences. A third, a firefighter who resigned from her position in 2016 after she reported to police that she was raped on assignment in Montana, said: “We all live in this fear … So if I have to speak up I will. But it’s frustrating because there’s so many more out there who are not talking.”

Reporting harassment

In interviews, Forest Service employees, union representatives, lawyers, and congressional investigators said the agency struggles with a long-standing “boys’ club” culture, not just in California, but all over the country. Women are often assigned to remote forests, where they may work in close quarters with male-dominated crews in high-risk scenarios. Socializing after hours can involve heavy drinking. Many women described the worst offenses in the agency’s wildland firefighting division, where the gender disparity is even greater: 6,633 fire employees are male, while just 890, or 13 percent, are female.

Debra D’Agostino, a federal employment lawyer who has represented at least five Forest Service women with gender discrimination complaints, said: “The stories I hear from female firefighters really sound like they are from the 1970s. It’s really old-fashioned sexist conduct that you just don’t expect to see these days.”

U.S. Forest Service Acting Associate Chief Lenise Lago said the agency is “on the right track.” In November 2017, she said, it created a harassment reporting center with a toll-free hotline. And later this year, the agency will for the first time require every employee to undergo identical sexual harassment training.

The Forest Service declined to comment on specific cases due to privacy, but said it takes “all reports of sexual harassment very seriously.”

“There are more numerous people doing the right thing than not,” Lago said.

Lenise Lago (top left, seen at 2016 congressional hearing), acting associate chief of the Forest Service, said the agency is “on the right track” in addressing workplace misconduct. Jim Lopez (bottom left), a union representative in California, said management at the agency is “out of its depth” in resolving the issue. Firefighters for the Forest Service are expected to carry 40 pounds or more of gear (right) while on assignment. Photos by Joshua Barajas

In the private sector, employees can file discrimination complaints directly with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an independent agency tasked with investigating workplace discrimination. But federal employees, including those in the Forest Service, must first contact their agency’s EEO counselor, who starts an investigation and then makes a decision with the agency on how to handle the complaint. Federal employees dissatisfied with the results can appeal that decision to the EEOC or pursue a case in federal district court.

Many of the women interviewed described the reporting process as long, complicated, and never ending in a satisfying conclusion. Investigations can take years and stretch into hundreds of pages, especially if there is more than one allegation.

The EEOC said the average processing time for all complaints in fiscal year 2016 was 464 days, and that it’s exploring ways to shorten the process. The Forest Service’s new hotline, which is staffed by contractors specifically trained to handle sexual harassment, aims to more efficiently respond to these claims.

Joe Duran, a union leader in California who has been with the Forest Service for more than 40 years, said: “I take an awful lot of phone calls with individuals … All I can do is give them counsel and advice. I’ll say, ‘you have to go through this or move on. And if you go the EEO route that could be years.’ That really tears them apart … People want to know why.”

But Duran said an even bigger issue is the retaliation people face after reporting bad behavior. “The ones that do [report] are harassed or reprised or stuck away someplace,” he said. And management does sometimes investigate this reprisal, he said, but “you’ll never hear the outcomes.”

‘You are a prime example of why women don’t belong in fire’

Last summer, one woman in the South was startled from the start of her season by the behavior of the men on her hotshot crew, an elite team that fights wildfires. The woman, who is 27 and asked for anonymity because she continues to work for the Forest Service, said they made disparaging sexual comments about a former female worker and implied that an EEO complaint had no consequences. “The only thing that EEO taught us is that we can get away with anything,” she recalled one man saying.

One day in mid-August, according to her records, a senior crew member directed an “emotional outburst” at her after she had trouble keeping up on a hike: “She shouldn’t be here — this is a hotshot crew. She needs to go the f**k home.”

Two weeks later, while fighting a fire in Montana, the woman was struck in the back by a falling fir tree cut down by a fellow crew member. She said he failed to call out a warning as it fell. “I don’t know about if he dropped it intentionally, but he definitely knew I was there and didn’t care. He didn’t care if he hurt me,” she said.

The tree weighed 100 pounds and sprained the ligaments of her lumbar spine, according to medical records. Her supervisor did not initially sign the necessary paperwork required for her medical treatment, according to a Forest Service police report. Patti Adkinson, a workers’ compensation representative who handled the woman’s case, found this disturbing. “My personal opinion is that happened because they were were trying to prove to her that she wasn’t a fit candidate to be a hotshot, so they were trying to make her suffer,” Adkinson said. “Absolutely they were intimidated by her being able to do what they could do.”

In California, firefighter Darla Bush had over the years grown accustomed to bullying, such as men putting lizards on her back or rocks in her pack. For the most part, it didn’t bother her. She put her head down, worked hard, and eventually advanced to the position of engine captain. But everything changed in 2011 when she told her supervisor she was pregnant with twins. According to Bush, who is now 40, he repeatedly told her she was “useless” because her doctor had ordered her to be on light duty. In the years that followed, she said, her duties were stripped away, trainings were denied, and she was ultimately demoted from her engine captain position. “I had a lot to contribute to the district,” she said. “[But] after I got there and reported that I was pregnant, is when my career spiraled downhill. And it’s been nonstop ever since.” Bush said she now sits in an office with almost no duties to perform. She is the lead complainant in a 2014 class action complaint alleging harassment and retaliation in the Forest Service.

Battalion chief Abby Bolt, 39, was raped while on assignment in 2012 in Colorado, by another firefighter who was not with the Forest Service. While she reported the rape to police, she did not report it to the Forest Service because she feared retaliation. “I had previously tried to report some bad behavior that’s not near as bad as sexual assault. So I can’t even imagine if I had reported the rape,” she said. “The Forest Service would have made it so hard on me.” Because she felt she could not trust the formal reporting channel, she confided instead in a fellow firefighter who she saw as a kind of protector. A year later, that friend died while fighting a fire. “And then that piece of security was gone too,” she said.

Weeks after receiving anonymous notes in her mailbox, Abby Bolt found “QUIT” written in the dust on the back of her vehicle. She took photos of the incident.

In the years since, Bolt said she has faced bullying and harassment from her male supervisors, which intensified after she contacted the Forest Service about filing a gender discrimination complaint in 2014. In January 2015, she filed a formal EEO complaint. Her case has been winding its way through that process ever since.

This past fall, Bolt said she received anonymous notes in her mailbox. “You are a prime example of why women don’t belong in fire, especially single mothers,” one of the notes read. “Let it go.” After she reported the notes, she received a letter from management saying the investigation was closed because “there was no accused person to interview.” And then in October, she found “QUIT” scrawled on the back of her dusty vehicle. After getting the notes, she said, “I have sat in my truck, in the parking lot, for hours and hours and actually, days. Like, there’s been days … after the notes that were left, that I couldn’t get out of my truck. I would pull up to the office and I just couldn’t get out.”

Jim Lopez, a union representative who has taken up Bolt’s gender discrimination case, said she is “the epitome of a bullying target — they tend to be high performers, good communicators and they tend to make the supervisors look bad.”

Fire, he said, remains “one of the last strongholds in the Forest Service of male domination,” and of men who don’t want women in their ranks.

The exterior of the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest regional office (top) in Vallejo, California. Smokey Bear, the agency’s fire prevention mascot, is seen inside a ranger station (bottom) in southern California. Photos by Joshua Barajas

Decades of disparity, and efforts to close the gap

The Forest Service was created in 1905 as an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though in many ways its mission echoed the goals of the National Parks Service, that of protecting and managing the public lands. Among those duties were firefighting and other responsibilities often seen as grueling tasks, work that a 1971 pamphlet describes as “men who don’t mind roughing it.”

In its early days, the Forest Service did employ women, but they were not expected to do field work. Hallie M. Daggett, the first woman to be employed in fire in the agency, joined in 1913 “after considerable exertion,” according to American Forestry magazine. “Few women would care for such a job, fewer still would seek it,” the magazine wrote.

Deanne Shulman, the first female smokejumper in the Forest Service, didn’t gain entry into the agency until 1981, nearly 70 years after Daggett took a post as fire lookout. Smokejumpers are part of an elite crew that jumps out of airplanes and parachutes down to fight fires below. Shulman passed the physical tests, but was initially denied the job because she was told she hadn’t met weight requirements; she was five pounds under the 130-pound minimum. It wasn’t until Shulman filed a formal EEO complaint did the agency open the work to women.

Today, a third of the Forest Service’s nearly 30,000 employees are women, according to the most recent agency figures, updated in January of this year.

Efforts to fix this gender disparity began decades ago. In 1973, Gene Bernardi, a research sociologist with the Forest Service, filed a class action lawsuit against the agency for gender discrimination in California. The suit led the Forest Service to later agree to a “consent decree” that required it to increase the number of women among its California staff to 43 percent, roughly the same percentage of women in the civilian workforce at the time.

The decree bred resentment among male Forest Service employees. In 1991, a bitter male fire captain wrote to The Hartford Courant newspaper, saying that the decree’s requirements were “tearing the agency apart, creating animosity and mistrust between men and women … and lowering the agency’s ability to do its job.” A group of male employees attempted to challenge the decree, but it was dismissed in court a year earlier.

Jonel Wagoner, one of the “Bernardi women” hired after the 1981 decree, said she retired last year after 37 seasons due to the mistreatment she endured.

“This agency, they just detest women, do not want women in their ranks. They hate educated strong women,” said the former firefighter, who is 57, and who also represented harassed women as a union representative. “If you’re not going to be one of the good old boys, you’re going to fail.”

A second class action lawsuit came in 1995 when two female former Forest Service employees alleged sexual harassment and reprisal on behalf of 6,000 women, also in California. The lawsuit led to another decree, requiring that the agency re-evaluate how it processed complaints. That decree expired in 2006.

Women in the Forest Service are assigned to remote locations, where they may work in close quarters with male-dominated crews in high-risk scenarios. Photo taken in Kernville, California, which is surrounded by the Sequoia National Forest. Photo by Joshua Barajas

And in 2014, a class action complaint was filed with the EEOC, claiming — again — sexual harassment of and retaliation against women in the Forest Service in California. That same year, California Rep. Jackie Speier recalls sending one of her staffers to a meeting with Forest Service officials. Media reports at the time pointed to continued problems with sexual misconduct within the agency. After the meeting, Speier said the staffer returned to the D.C. office “demonstrably shocked” and in disbelief.

When the staffer asked Forest Service officials about the sexual misconduct, she recalled to the NewsHour, they responded with the sentiment of “Boys will be boys.”

Two years later, the National Parks Service was flagged by the Interior Department for similar problems. At the time, then-Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell told employees in an agency-wide email that stories of sexual abuse within the Forest Service were mostly “older allegations.”

Darlene Hall, who is 53, and one of three named complainants in the 2014 case, said that isn’t true. To her, the misbehavior today is as bad or worse, just more covert than in the past. The message remains clear, she said: “You’re female, you don’t belong here. Speak up, and you get hammered.”

Lack of follow-up

In December 2016, the congressional hearing was held to publicly address the concerns of rampant sexual misconduct, assault and discrimination within Region 5 — the California arm — of the Forest Service.

At the hearing, Lesa Donnelly, an early class action complainant and a whistleblower who has advised many California-based Forest Service women, shared story after story of misconduct she’d heard. Forest Service firefighter Denice Rice also testified about her own experience, detailing that her supervisor had asked for sex, stalked her, and poked her breasts with a letter opener. “The instant I filed” a complaint, she said, “everything changed.” Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle grilled the agency about their poor record of responding to these issues.

In her opening statement, Lago, then-deputy chief of business operations at the Forest Service, defended the agency, saying: “We investigate all allegations. We hold people accountable.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, vowed that members would “use every power we possibly can from this pulpit” to ensure that women “never have to go through that again in any way shape or form.”

A “Thank you, firefighters” sign seen on the way into the Los Padres National Forest in southern California. Video by Joshua Barajas

But more than a year later, there’s been little follow-up from the Hill. The Office of the Inspector General is expected to release an audit in April that will evaluate how well the Forest Service has addressed complaints of workplace misconduct.

The Forest Service, for its part, said it updated its anti-harassment policy ahead of the hearing, in September 2016, and launched the national hotline the following November. Since the new anti-harassment policy was put in place, the agency said, it has received 1,013 reports of harassment, and completed inquiries or investigations in 632 of those cases. Of those, the agency said it found misconduct in 150 cases.

For every misconduct finding, the agency said it delivered a corrective action that ranged from a warning letter to termination, “depending on the severity and facts gathered in each case,” Babete Anderson, an agency spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

But nearly every female Forest Service employee the NewsHour spoke with said they did not believe the hotline was fixing anything. Wagoner, who remembers a previous Forest Service hotline in California that later went away, said she had seen women retaliated against for calling. Bolt, the battalion chief in California who received the harassing notes, said she submitted more than one complaint to the new hotline and never received any follow up.

Frustrated, Bolt sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the USDA to try to figure out what happened to her hotline complaints. She received a letter back from the USDA that said the FOIA office had a backlog, and said she hasn’t received any correspondence since.

The ones who leave

Nearly all of the women interviewed said they loved the Forest Service. They loved the mission of protecting forests. The time outside. The adrenaline of fighting fires. The dirty work. The camaraderie. And the skill required. For these reasons, despite the harassment they faced, many of them chose to stay.

But there were also the women who quit or were pushed out, and never returned.

At first, Erinn Whitmer loved her job as a seasonal firefighter. She was an adrenaline junkie who always wanted to be outdoors. And she grew up in Northern California, in wildfire country, where her home was twice evacuated for fires. “I grew up near fire crews,” she said, and admired them. “But I didn’t realize how naive I was to the culture.”

Whitmer worked eight seasons in fire for public land agencies: first the Park Service, then the Bureau of Land Management, and then the Forest Service in California. She soon saw what she called a “womanizing” culture in all three — but the Forest Service was the worst, she said. There, crew members constantly talked about sex and pressured women for it. Hard-drinking seemed part of being on the crew. One night in November 2011, according to a police report at the time and later sworn testimony to a Forest Service investigator, Whitmer and her coworkers drank for several hours at a local bar. Things started to get fuzzy from there. She remembers hanging out with several people back at the barracks, and one crew member talking his way up to her room. Her next memory is waking up in her bed and realizing he was having sex with her.

“I heard stories … I never thought these terrible things would happen to me,” she scrawled in the margins of her typed testimony in September 2013, which she sent back to the investigator. “I just want these guys to stop getting these women drunk and using them for sex…” and: “I’m not the only female who has gone through this hell.”

Whitmer, who is now 37, did not ever press charges, telling police she didn’t want to ruin his life. But she was was shocked in 2013 when she was assigned to the same fire as the crew member.

“This was my first contact with [him] since the incident,” she wrote in a December 2013 letter she said she shared as part of an EEO complaint. “I did not know until we were in route [sic] to the fire that [he] would be there … I did not know I would have such a strong reaction to seeing him.” At the fire, she told her squad leader, “I can’t do this,” before she began crying and walked off the fire line. A few weeks after that, she received a letter placing her on administrative leave for “disruptive behavior.”

She ultimately left the Forest Service in late 2013.

Speaking up

A common thread in conversations with all 34 Forest Service women was that the time had come to speak up. Some formed new communities on social media where they talked about how to deal with the harassment. Others filed complaints or spoke to supervisors about harassment for the first time. They said the #MeToo movement factored into why they wanted to talk to the media.

“There’s little girls coming up, and there’s teenagers coming up … that want to be in these jobs,” said Bolt, who in February was suspended, according to her, in part for failure to follow instructions for not drug testing a new mother. “If I lose my job now, but it helps it get a little bit better,” it will have been worth it, she said.

Meanwhile the hotshot crew member who was hit by a falling tree said she was gathering documentation to file her first ever report of misconduct, to the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General. She said she’d frame it as a safety issue, instead of gender discrimination, because she thought that would be more likely to get a response.

Michaela Myers, pictured in her camper in Seattle, has since been offered a new firefighting job in Washington state in the Forest Service. Photo by William Brangham

Out West, Michaela Myers was offered another firefighting job in the Forest Service, not in Oregon, but with a crew in Washington. She said she’d heard from a network of agency women — and hoped — that it was a better forest in which to work.

And Darla Bush, who said she was told she was useless after getting pregnant, continues to pursue her class action complaint. Today, she has three girls. Two of them want to become firefighters, she said, and then started to cry. “I won’t say it out loud to them, but I would never wish for them to become firefighters. Not in this agency.”

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