Sexual harassment is a two word phrase which hopes to never be brought up in a fire department, legally or just in conversation. It is a despicable practice that is widely acceptable around the nation in fire departments and in business. However, it is not tolerated on the legal front, nor should it ever be condoned in a professional environment. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender is absolutely intolerable and is a plague on today’s fire service. Claims on sexual harassment arise all the time and are never short of horrendous and demeaning acts, as well as crude remarks against the plaintiff.
Many legal issues arise when it comes to sexual harassment as so many aspects play into a claim of sexual harassment. The term ‘sexual harassment’ is defined as – “Unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, when submission to or rejection of this conduct affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment” By J. Curtis Varone, Legal Considerations for Fire and emergency services, 2nd edition, page 421.
Accordingly sexual harassment claims tend to include almost all the above elements as well as many more elements, be they physical or verbal. It is also broken down into two main categories. The two categories of sexual harassment are ‘quid pro quo’ (this for that) and ‘hostile work environment’. Quid Pro Quo sexual harassment – “Occurs when the employee’s employment opportunities or benefits are granted or denied because of an individual’s submission to sexual advances or requests for sexual favors. ” Varone, 421.
Such examples of this kind of sexual harassment would include a female firefighter being denied a promotion unless she submitted to a perverse act entirely unrelated to the typical means of promotion. Often times, such harassment only occurs whereby the supervisor is the harasser, making the employer strictly liable for the claim. Hostile Work Environment sexual harassment “Occurs when unwelcome sexual conduct unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or has the effect of creating an intimidating or offensive work environment”
Varone, 422. Such related examples do not even need to relate to employment opportunities or anything related under ‘quid pro quo’ harassment. It is possible for hostile work environment harassment to occur when either the employer or supervisor should have known about the event occurring, or that the said supervisor should have done something about it. Possible examples include sexually oriented comments, display of sexually oriented material in the workplace, sexually oriented demeaning names or obscene remarks or jokes to the harassed individual.
Often more times than not, hostile work environment harassment is more common than quid pro quo. Statistics on sexual harassment are surprisingly low compared to other types of harassment or discrimination. Sexual harassment is under-represented due to fear of punishment or disciplinary action. The EEOC puts out statistics every year on the matter. The year of 2011 was the lowest amount of claims year in the past decade; however, the damages done are no less degrading. The below table is based upon EEOC statistics. EEOC Sexual Harassment Claims: 2011 Statistics |
Total Claims filed | 11,364| % of Charges Filed by Males | 16. 3%| | Claims Resolutions by Type: | Number | Percent | Settlements | 1,367| 10. 9% | Withdrawals w/Benefits | 1,150| 9. 1% | Administrative Closures | 2,635 | 21. 0%| No Reasonable Cause | 6,658| 53. 0%| Reasonable Cause | 761| 6. 1%| Successful Conciliations | 288| 2. 3%| Unsuccessful Conciliations | 473| 3. 8%| Merit Resolutions | 3,278 | 26. 1%| Total Settlement Dollars | $52,300,000| Compared to previous years, 2011 has been substantially lower in amount of claims of sexual harassment.
Also seen is the financial burden that sexual harassment carries. It is by no means unreasonable for the amount and extent of damages that occur for the affected individuals. Real examples of sexual harassment in the media are ever prevalent today. One such recent example comes from Phoenix, Arizona. The female plaintiff alleges that she endured years of demeaning names and remarks as well as having been passed up for promotion where it was due. She issued a $70,000 lawsuit against the City of Phoenix. A case very similar to this is the Julia M.
O’Rourke v City of Providence case from the early 90’s, which I think will be similar to the final outcome of the City of Phoenix case. Julia M. O’Rourke was one of the first female firefighters in the history of the Providence fire department. She started with 6 other women in the process of the fire departments academy in January of 1992. After which, O’Rourke was hired under the city’s new affirmative action policy. It wasn’t until this point that the Chief of the department made a sexual harassment policy. The policy stated was to keep sexual related content, be it media, or remarks out of the department.
It also stated that the supervisor of each station was responsible to enforce the policy. Also added was a course on sensitivity training as well as a sexual harassment course. Prior to even being fully employed, Julia experienced many instances of sexual harassment during the academy. Almost every instance can be tied to hostile work environment sexual harassment. On numerous occasions, one specific academy member, Ferro, was found to be discussing overly sexual opinions, displaying pornographic content to other members as well as making remarks specifically to O’Rourke.
In one specific event, Ferro pointed to O’Rourke’s breasts and claimed that she was “stacked”, in the company of many other students at a water training exercise. Ferro continued to be a general problem for O’Rourke during the course of the academy. Even after making through the academy and being hired on at engine 5, B shift, the harassment did not stop, in fact, it got worse. Instead of just from a co-worker, harassment was now coming from the company officer on her shift. A specific event occurred where the company officer threw pieces of paper with O’Rourkes number out of the engine while going past a bar in the own. Despite being asked to stop by O’Rourke, the company officer continued and laughed. Also at one point, she was warned that there was the possibility of there being a closed circuit camera in her bunk room. She felt completely invaded and violated in a place that should feel at the very least safe. Volatile treatment like this continued to occur for the next 2 years. Finally in September of 1994, O’Rourke sought out the City’s EEO officer. This finally got the ball rolling to straighten out and shed justice on the issue.
Final verdicts won for O’Rourke throughout the year of 1997 on numerous cases on the basis of hostile work environment sexual harassment. O’Rourke was victorious in receiving her dues on the basis of sexual harassment. I feel that the Phoenix Arizona case will play out similarly, but only time will tell as there is not much information so far on the exact events or court trials. Ultimately, sexual harassment will continue to plague the fire service until people become more tolerable of others differences.
Sexual harassment is immensely degrading for the affected individual and is nothing short of driving a person to inadequacy. It should never be tolerated in the workplace or professional environment and certainly has no place in the fire service. The main virtue is that a person can do the job. That is the only merit that holds true, but discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual preference simply isn’t a proper means of deciding whether or not an individual should be able to perform in this job.
It is my hope that there will continue to be a downward trend in sexual harassment claims and actual occurrences as the practice of such is horrendous. Works Cited – Varone, J. C. (2006). Legal considerations for fire and emergency services. Delmar Pub. Resendez, M. E. (Writer) (2012). In ABC 15. Phoenix, AZ: ABC. Retrieved from http://www. abc15. com/dpp/news/region_phoenix_metro/central_phoenix/70k-sexual-harassment-lawsuit-prompts-big-changes-at-the-Phoenix-Fire-Department Eeoc. Retrieved from http://www. eeoc. gov/