Fighting fires can be a tough job, but it’s even harder if you also have to worry about getting cat-called or sexually assaulted by your colleagues.
Nathalie Fontanez, a firefighter in Boston, reached a $3.2 million settlement with the department over harassment and retaliation, her lawyers revealed on Jan. 12. After joining the department in 2011 out of a desire to serve her community, she was harassed, sexually assaulted by a colleague, and faced poor treatment because she complained.
Firefighting has a reputation as a “macho” profession, and fitting with that image, overwhelmingly employs men. Nationally, just 4 percent of firefighters are women. The Boston department, though, is particularly male-dominated. Just 1 percent of the city’s firefighters are women or a total of only 17.
Little wonder that the scant number of women firefighters in Boston have sometimes faced incredibly hostile work conditions. WGBH Boston reported in January 2019 that three of the city’s woman firefighters, including Fontanez, had gone public with stories about unfair treatment, harassment, and retaliation.
In Fontanez’s case, she was harassed on the job and also assaulted one night in a firehouse by another firefighter. The male firefighter, David Sanchez, was eventually criminally charged and sentenced to probation over the incident in which he tried to kiss her and then assaulted her.
After she reported the treatment to her supervisors, Fontanez also faced retaliation. She wanted to join the department’s investigative unit, but was told only firefighters with higher seniority levels were eligible. Shortly after she was rejected, a male firefighter who had just been hired was put on the team.
A report issued in January 2019 detailed a hostile work environment for women in the department, according to WGBH. The review, conducted by a law firm retained by the city, found that male firefighters didn’t see a problem with derogatory language about women, often described as “locker-room talk.”
The women said they faced a unique fear about coming forward with their complaints. Not only could they potentially be retaliated against, in the form of getting less desirable work assignments, but their very safety could be put in jeopardy. They noted that support from colleagues was essential to fighting fires safely.
The settlement news comes not long after a lawsuit was filed in Warren County, New Jersey, by a teenaged volunteer firefighter, who said she was subject to a constant stream of racial and sexual harassment from the fire chief. The teenager was of Indian descent and was subjected to numerous harassing comments and text messages starting when she was just 16.
As disturbing as these incidents are, the federal government has fortunately taken sexual harassment complaints by female firefighters seriously. In October, the U.S. Department of Justice settled a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit against the Houston Fire Department over discrimination and retaliation. As part of the agreement, the department secured $342,500 for two female firefighters and an agreement by the department to reform its training practices.
Firefighters Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes alleged they were subjected to a hostile work environment by male colleagues who, among other things, soiled their bathroom by urinating on the walls, floors, and sinks of the space. The “pranks” also included disconnecting cold water in their showers and silencing their announcement speakers so that they could not respond to emergencies.
Supervisors did nothing to stop the behavior when the women complained. Members of the department retaliated against Draycott by disparaging her in a workplace meeting. She eventually left her role because of intolerable working conditions.
Were You Sexually Harassed at Your Job as a Firefighter?
Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal. If you have been subject to sexual harassment at work, one of our knowledgeable attorneys at Whistleblower Law Group will evaluate your case free of charge.
To learn more, visit our sexual harassment FAQ page. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us today for a free consultation online, at 877.858.8018 or by email at [hidden email].