Current and former female firefighters of the United States Forest Service have filed a complaint with the Department of Agriculture alleging that they suffered job discrimination, harassment and sexual abuse at the hands of male co-workers and that top agency officials failed to stop it, reports The New York Times.
The women said the complaint, the first step in a potential class-action lawsuit, was filed late last month on behalf of hundreds of women who worked in the Forest Service’s Region 5, which encompasses more than 20 million acres in 18 national forests in California. The seven women who are the lead complainants said they faced retaliation when they reported the offenses to superiors.
The complaint was the latest in a number of race and gender disputes in the Agriculture Department, the parent agency of the Forest Service. In recent years the department has settled a class-action suit brought by Native American farmers, offered payments to Hispanic and female farmers who alleged discrimination and approved a $1.15 billion settlement with black farmers, decades after the farmers said that they were denied loans and subject to racial discrimination in agriculture programs.
In response to the firefighters, a Forest Service official said the agency would review the complaint and was focused on correcting any problems. “The Forest Service takes these and all allegations of civil rights violations very seriously and is committed to providing a work environment that is free of harassment and discrimination,” said Lenise Lago, the Forest Service’s deputy chief of business operations.
But advocates for past complainants said problems remain.
“There is something about the culture at the agency, maybe because so many of its programs are in rural areas, where most of the offices are staffed by white men who think this is acceptable behavior,” said John Boyd, a Virginia farmer and president of the National Black Farmers Association, who led the fight for black farmer compensation. “The Obama administration has tried its best to deal with this issue, but it’s entrenched because the bureaucrats outlast administrations.”
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