New details emerge in alleged harassment of female SF firefighter

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Posted by Legal Team On August 15, 2022

San Francisco Chronicle – September 22, 2016 – By: Michael Bodley

When a female firefighter scored a choice spot at a station in San Francisco’s Chinatown, she was immediately met with resistance by her new male colleagues, including one who asked her an intimidating question: “Do you know how difficult your time is going to be?”

A document obtained by The Chronicle outlines details from an independent investigation into just how miserable her life was made in the “male-dominated” culture of Station 2 at 1340 Powell St., one of the busiest firehouses in the city. The question presented to the female firefighter before her first shift even began was the start of a systematic harassment campaign intended to drive her out of the firehouse, the investigation concluded.

But the months of harassment she endured resulted in Chief Joanne Hayes-White’s recent decision to reassign the entire command staff away from the station, blaming “deficiencies in leadership” for creating a “hostile work environment based on gender,” according to a separate letter obtained by The Chronicle that was signed by Hayes-White.

Investigators found credible claims that the harassment included urination in the female firefighter’s bed and feces left on the floor of the women’s bathroom at the station, among other incidents Hayes-White deemed “egregious.” After the woman reported it, her co-workers retaliated by branding her a “rat,” the report says.

Written by Micki Callahan, the director of human resources for San Francisco, to Hayes-White, the confidential letter recounts a series of instances in which the female firefighter was harassed and discriminated against “because she is a woman.”

“The investigation revealed that the culture at Station 2 is hostile and challenging for females,” Callahan wrote in her 13-page letter dated Aug. 31.

The harassment began in November 2015, the letter says, when the victim decided to apply to Station 2. It intensified during her first shift in January 2016 and continued for eight shifts through February, when she reported the harassment to department leadership.

Her male co-workers, according to Callahan’s report, openly expressed doubts that she was strong enough to hold her own in the field – “because she is a woman” – and “more likely than not” referred to her as a “bitch.”

The victim told investigators her co-workers tampered with her belongings kept at the firehouse, in one instance pumping her lotion all over the women’s bathroom counter and removing her toilet paper.

She started snapping pictures of her personal effects at the end of shifts, the woman told investigators, to see if anyone messed with them in her absence.

Before she started at Station 2, the woman stopped by to introduce herself on Jan. 10, dropping off her firefighting gear for cleaning, a common practice at the station. A male firefighter was found responsible by investigators for hiding her uniform in a cabinet three days later “to make her feel unwelcome.” Her gear was never cleaned.

The victim waited seven shifts before reporting the alleged misconduct, the report said, because she wanted to “resolve the situation herself” to avoid having to file a formal complaint.

That’s relatively quick for reporting workplace harassment, said Kelly Armstrong, a San Francisco lawyer who has worked on harassment cases for 15 years. Many victims endure the treatment for months or years because they’re afraid of retribution, Armstrong said.

Though the report mentioned multiple male firefighters by name, none of them was found specifically responsible for their individual conduct, and witnesses often offered conflicting accounts of the allegations.

Hayes-White is responsible for disciplining firefighters in such situations, including meting out suspensions or firings. While no firefighters from Station 2 were fired or suspended, the chief ordered all officers there to be transferred to other firehouses “on or around” Oct. 8.

An independent agency, the San Francisco Fire Commission, must approve disciplinary measures that exceed a 10-day suspension. The commissioners had no knowledge of the case until reading about it in The Chronicle on Wednesday, a representative said, meaning no suspensions exceeding 10 days were issued by Hayes-White following the investigation.

“They’re frequently not punished because when employers conduct investigations, many people will be in fear for their jobs if they confirm that they witnessed anything, and people involved may deny involvement or downplay what happened,” said Armstrong, a partner with the Armstrong Law Firm.

Through a spokesman, Hayes-White declined to comment on the “personnel matter.” A spokesman also declined to comment on the specific case, citing it as a personnel manner.

“We have taken swift and comprehensive actions to remedy any situation so that our workplaces are safe and welcoming for all,” said Lt. Jonathan Baxter, a department spokesman.

Linda Simon, deputy director of the San Francisco Department of Human Resources, the city agency that investigated the harassment, said earlier this week that her department found “sufficient evidence to substantiate these allegations.” She declined to confirm details of the confidential city document.

Firefighters at Station 2 were required to sign and return to the city a form acknowledging receipt of San Francisco’s antiharassment and antidiscrimination policies, according to a separate letter written by Hayes-White. A copy will be kept in their personnel files.

Reached by phone, firefighters at Station 2 declined to comment.

In her report, Callahan concluded that the female firefighter’s “work environment requires that she rely on her colleagues in dangerous, life-threatening situations, including protecting one another from bodily injury or even death. Therefore, it is crucial that she be able to trust, have confidence in, and feel comfortable with her colleagues and their interest in her welfare to ensure a safe and effective working environment.”

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