Sexual harassment claims at Elma Fire Department not “severe and pervasive”


An investigator working for the city’s insurance firm looking into complaints of sexual harassment in the Elma Fire Department found that the sexual comments directed at a female volunteer firefighter “do not appear to constitute severe and pervasive conduct.”

However, Fire Chief Dave Spalding said the allegations and resulting investigation did result in a couple of letters of reprimand to firefighters — and ultimately had the chilling effect of stopping the typical locker room talk that had been pervasive at the department for years.

“We have had some conversations that we need to do better,” Spalding said. “And we will do better.”

Firefighter Kirsten Walshe made allegations back in September that her fellow firefighters were making phallic jokes and lewd comments about sexual situations. Spalding put her on administrative leave pending the investigation.

“When the investigation concluded, we invited her back to the fire department and we were willing to start over,” Spalding said. “Instead, she had moved out of the community. … She’s still welcome back if she ever returns.”

Spalding said that the fire department currently has no other women enrolled as volunteers.

Walshe alleged she should never have been put on administrative leave and that she was being punished. She alleged that those making the harmful talk should have been put on leave. Spalding had said she was placed on the leave to protect her.

“Ms. Walshe did not lose any financial benefits as a result of the administrative leave,” investigator Kenneth Wilson wrote in his report. “…To the contrary, she was awarded points for activities at a higher percentage than she would have likely received had she not been placed on administrative leave. The administrative leave was intended to protect her from the harassment she alleged in her petition to the district court.”

Walshe alleged that on one occasion, a male firefighter insinuated in course language that he had a sexual encounter with her.

Walshe also alleged a supervising firefighter “takes every opportunity to voice his displeasure with women in the workplace” and alleged another firefighter made a crude comment about sexual lubricant when the equipment needed to be kept up. “Muted snickering” by other firefighters followed, her letter to the city states.

The investigation was conducted in December and January with the report filed on Jan. 22. Under the state Public Records Records Act, the documents were turned over to The Vidette last month — a delay of a few weeks because several firefighters were considering an injunction to stop the release of the records. Ultimately, the injunction was never sought.

Wilson, the investigator, says he interviewed 26 people — some of them multiple times. He crafted a 40-page report with dozens of more pages of transcripts and notes on the different people he interviewed.

The report was paid for by the city’s insurance company and the city wasn’t charged.

In addition to the complaints about the firefighters, Walshe also alleged that Elma Mayor Dave Osgood, his son-in-law and another firefighter had been stalking her by driving by her home or places where she had been. She allegedly watched Osgood drive by her house six times one night and stop in front of it at least twice for several minutes, watching her residence while she and friends were home. Osgood said it’s a small town and he had a lot to do that night, including picking up his 15-year-old grandson and his date from Homecoming and traveling to a fire call that night. He denied the allegations.

Walshe sought protection orders in Grays Harbor District Court this past October, but Judge Tom Copland denied the orders, calling it “a very thin case in terms of stalking or intimidation. … I’m not seeing a pattern of conduct here directed at a specific incident. The evidence is just too thin.”

Wilson said since the judge declined the protection order, he didn’t look at those allegations.

Wilson said he can confirm that the “dick slap” comment was made by a firefighter, but there’s disagreement over whether it was made by a man whom Walshe was in a relationship with or another firefighter. There were multiple interviews with different parties saying different things. The fire chief issued a letter of reprimand to the firefighter who “gave a high five” after the incident.

The fire chief also issued a letter of reprimand to the firefighter who made the comment about the lubricant. The firefighter told the investigator, “It was intended as a joke and not directed at Ms. Walshe,” according to the report.

Walshe also identified a number of other incidents that she believes constituted harassment, but not necessarily sexual harassment that were reviewed.

“Although Ms. Walshe subjectively believes others singled her out for disparate treatment because of her gender, objectively, the facts do not support such a conclusion,” the report states.

The report finds that besides the claims of sexual harassment, the complaints were made shortly after Walshe’s boyfriend, Jonathan White, got into a dispute with the city of Elma after the city terminated him from a code enforcement/fire records clerk post he had with the city. White had been hired as a temporary employee in June, then promoted to full-time in October. But, when the city couldn’t verify his previous job experience, he was terminated in February of 2013.

The city had sent out a self-addressed stamped envelope to his previous employers and no one ever responded.

White ultimately won an appeal to get benefits from the state Employment Security Department by proving his job history and certification was accurate.

In September, White filed a $250,000 claim for damages against the city alleging “wrongful discharge” and “defamation of character.”

By October, Walshe filed her sexual harassment claims against the city.

“Mr. White contends that following his termination from the fire department, Ms. Walshe and Mr. White said the fire department and the city started a campaign to force her into quitting,” the investigator writes. “Even if true, it was never alleged this action was ‘because of’ her gender, but rather ‘because of’ her affiliation with someone else.”

OFF-COLOR JOKES

Looking at the overall environment, the investigator asked several current and former firefighters for their impressions.

A couple of firefighters, including the fire chief, alleged that Walshe would join in on off-color jokes about another firefighter’s sexuality.

A former female firefighter told the investigator that when she was interviewed for the position, she was asked if she was “OK hearing dirty or off-color jokes.”

“Her response was, ‘I am OK only if I can have a comeback.’ She said everyone laughed at her response.”

The former female firefighter added that the chief “has a reputation for telling off-color jokes that were funny, but not offending. She said Mr. Spalding was careful on the types of jokes and the subject matter of his jokes.”

Another firefighter said Spalding may tell inappropriate jokes, but “they are also funny.”

“There is little doubt most everyone at the fire station, including Ms. Walshe, used inappropriate language in the workplace,” Wilson wrote in his conclusions.

Spalding says today that this experience has honestly made him tell fewer off-color jokes in an effort to maintain a more professional environment.

 

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