By AFRO Staff

Government officials in Baltimore County have worked out a settlement with the Department of Justice regarding sexual assault allegations filed against the Baltimore County Fire Department (BCoFD). 

Eleven women will be paid a total of $275,000 and a consent decree between Baltimore County orders the BCoFD to rethink and revamp their fair practice policy and the procedures related to how investigations are handled. BCoFD employees at every level will receive “live, interactive, annual training” and a survey system must be created and used to measure workplace climate, according to an official statement from Baltimore County officials. The consent decree also requires that the DOJ sign off on the new policies and procedures. 

“Every employee deserves to feel safe in the workplace and I am proud of the progress we have started under my tenure to diversify our department and strengthen our culture,” said Baltimore County Fire Chief Joanne Rund, in the statement. “Through this agreement, the Department is sending a clear message that Baltimore County will not tolerate harassment in the workplace and I fully support the steps required to ensure we are doing all we can to be supportive of all of our people.”

At the heart of the case are nude photos of multiple female BCoFD employees shared via social media by a male coworker. 

According to the DOJ, “several female employees were subjected to a hostile work environment when a male coworker distributed nude and other inappropriate photographs of female [BCoFD] employees to other coworkers, solicited such photographs from coworkers and posted the photos on a social media site.”

The DOJ reports that “as alleged, BCFD failed to promptly and thoroughly investigate the harassment and failed to adequately communicate with the victims as the harassment came to light, perpetuating the hostile work environment that the female employees faced.” 

County officials say the male employee distributed the images in June 2017. This led to a complaint with the Baltimore Office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which ultimately sent the case to the DOJ.

DOJ officials found that Baltimore County violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “by subjecting several female employees to a hostile work environment on the basis of their sex.”

According to the DOJ, “Title VII is a federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex and religion and prohibits retaliation against employees for opposing discriminatory employment practices.” 

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division weighed in on the agreement. 

“Women deserve protection from sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the workplace, and this lawsuit and consent decree demonstrate the department’s commitment to that principle,” she said, via a DOJ press release. “Like any other employer, fire departments must take prompt and appropriate actions to correct an ongoing hostile work environment. Addressing sexual harassment in the firefighting industry is critical to efforts to bring more women into a profession where they have faced historic rates of exclusion, marginalization and discrimination.”

According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), “5 percent of all career firefighters are women” and “11 percent of the volunteer fire service are women.”

USFA lists gender inclusive recruitment tactics, nonwage benefits and a Candidate Physical Ability Test as ways to get more women to join the fire department and make a career out of the profession.

The USFA report, “Emerging Health and Safety Issues Among Women in the Fire Service,” was released in 2019 and highlights the many challenges women face in the firefighting industry. 

Advocates and elected officials are working to change the climate by eliminating discriminatory practices, bullying and harassment.

“Sexual harassment in the workplace too often goes uncorrected,” said Director  Rosemarie Rhodes of the EEOC Baltimore Office. “Allowing such behavior to go unchecked when it affects one victim of sexual harassment is too much, let alone when it affects at least eleven victims. It’s critical to remind victims that sexual harassment is against the law, they do not have to tolerate it at work, and they are protected when they complain.”