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Women Firefighters Allege Sexual Harassment and Abuse From Coworkers

Several women firefighters who are currently or who have previously worked with the US Forest Service filed a complaint last month alleging they faced sexual abuse, harassment and job discrimination from their male coworkers.

The complaint, filed with the Department of Agriculture on behalf of hundreds of women in the Forest Service's Region 5 in California, claims officials did not do enough to stop harassment and abuse. Seven women are heading the complaint.

Alicia Dabney, one of the former firefighters filing the complaint, told The New York Times she faced attempted rape and humiliation during her time in the Forest Service. It was a frat boy atmosphere," she told them. "You are often isolated because where you work is so remote."

Dabney said her supervisor, who is currently employed by the Forest Service, put her in a chokehold and tried to rape her. She also once found fliers on the floor of the fire station with "Alicia Dabney is a whore" written on them. Dabney said that when she reported the harassment, she was fired because her superiors said she failed to disclose her previous criminal record. Dabney argues her superiors were fully aware of her record but that "this was dredged up after [she] complained.

Another complainant, Darlene Hall, said some of the men she supervised used abusive language against her. "I had one instance where a man who worked under me came into my office and just started cursing at me," Hall said. "He was threatening, and I was afraid because you're out there alone." She said she reported the incident but that nothing was done except the fact that she was denied a promotion.

Similar complaints were filed in the 1970s and 1990s by women workers in Region 5 who claimed they were harassed and not given the same career opportunities as their male counterparts.

Women in Region 5 make up only 12 percent of the fire service and 24 percent of fire leadership positions, but four out of nine regional fire directors are women, including Region 5's director. Previously, Region 5 was under a consent decree as a result of a class action lawsuit brought by lead plaintiff Gene Bernardi that alleged discrimination against women in hiring and promotion. Under the decree, which lasted from 1981 to 1992, women had to make up more than 43 percent of jobs in each series and pay grade. Nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 4.5 percent of firefighters are women.

The Agriculture Department has 180 days from the filing of the complaint to investigate and settle the claim, otherwise the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will take the case up for investigation - and if the EEOC doesn't settle, the complaint may go to federal court.

In a similar case, the EEOC filed a lawsuit earlier this year on behalf of several women farmworkers who alleged a Colorado potato warehouse allowed managers to sexually harass female employees. The EEOC claimed the warehouse violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sexual harassment.

Media Resources: The New York Times 9/19/2014; Bureau of Labor Statistics; The Forest History Society; Feminist Newswire 8/13/2014; US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission