Written by Charles D. Carter, a certified litigation specialist and expert witness with more than 30 years of public safety experience and specializes in 9-1-1 lawsuits. He has represented plaintiffs and defendants in 24 9-1-1 lawsuits.
Discrimination and harassment occur in the 9-1-1 environment just as in other workplaces. This article briefly defines discrimination and harassment, provides legal remedies and reviews actual examples of 9-1-1 harassment and discrimination lawsuits.
To "discriminate" against someone is to treat that person differently or less favorably for some reason. The Equal Employmant Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for protecting you from one type of discrimination: employment discrimination due to your race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, disability, age (age 40 or older) or genetic information.
"Harassment" is governed by state laws, which vary, but it's generally defined as unwanted, unwelcome and uninvited behavior that demeans, threatens or offends the victim and results in a hostile environment for the victim.
Harassing behavior may include epithets, derogatory comments or slurs and lewd propositions, assault, impeding or blocking movement, offensive touching or any physical interference with normal work or movement, and visual insults, such as derogatory posters or cartoons.
Harassment becomes unlawful when:
- Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment; or
- The conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive.
Offensive conduct may include offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.
WHAT SHOULD I DO?
If you are harassed by a co-worker, be direct and tell the person to stop, preferably while another person is present, so you can use them as a witness if it becomes necessary. If the direct approach does not solve the problem, then report the situation to a supervisor, an HR representative or manager.
If you think a supervisor is harassing or discriminating against you, report the problem directly to HR or a manager. If this doesn't resolve the problem, contact an attorney or the EEOC directly.
Several recent cases illustrate the varying nature of discrimination and harassment.
Bellingham, Wash. - Western Washington University agreed to pay $135,000 to a dispatcher in its police department who alleged she was fired in 2007 after complaining about co-workers making racist and sexist remarks. Shannon O'Dwyer alleged Western violated state whistleblower protection laws when she was fired after she made several complaints to supervisors and the university's HR department about the remarks her co-workers were making. Those included remarks that Western was hiring minorities only to fill quotas, insinuating that a woman kept her job only because she performed sexual favors and that an African-American co-worker was promoted only "because he's black."
Lexington, Ky. - An employee at Lexington's Division of Enhanced 9-1-1 filed a lawsuit claiming that a supervisor retaliated when she went outside her chain of command to report problems. Emergency calltaker Tammy Hayden seeks compensatory and punitive damages and "removal of the negative reprimands from her personnel file."
Mount Vernon, Ohio - A federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court alleges Brian Hess, director of the Knox County Emergency Management Agency, sexually harassed 9-1-1 dispatchers and created a hostile work environment in the call center beginning in early 2009.
As the above examples show, discrimination and harassment can take many forms. But such behaviors share one thing: They cannot be tolerated in the call center. Whether you observe such behavior or are a victim of it, you should act quickly to put an end to it. Proactive leaders will establish educational programs and guidelines to prevent such behavior from happening in the first place.