PBS NewsHour’s recent report exposing a hostile work environment and numerous instances of sexual harassment in the Colorado United States Forest Service has placed the agency under extreme scrutiny. Prior to the allegations, the Forest Service made numerous claims that outlined training to prevent sexual harassment in the form of assaults, intimidation, or other inappropriate actions along with stiff penalties for those who did not adhere to federal law. Unfortunately, the reports and statements made by former employees have exposed a history of sexual harassment that the agency did not prevent, failing to protect their most vulnerable employees.
Biologist Cheyenne Szydlo outlined her own experience traveling with a Forest Service employee in 2006. Her coworker, Dave Loeffler, was supposed to work with her during hard-won seasonal position in the science division of the National Park Service. During the journey through Colorado Loeffler repeatedly made sexually explicit comments and suggestions, allegedly growing agitated as the trip went on and Szydlo did not respond to his harassment or advances. Eventually, Loeffler retaliated by forcing her into the Colorado River Rapids without any safety devices and, after she explicitly told him to stop harassing her, he became hostile and gave her the bare minimum food possible.
Cheyenne Szydlo’s experience is not unique, and over 40 men and women employed by the U.S. Forest service have come forward with their own stories of harassment, assault, and retaliatory actions. In 1994 Lesa Donnelly filed a complaint against three of her U.S. Forest Service colleagues accusing the three men of harassing her. After filing the complaint, Donnelly claimed she was harassed, threatened with rape, and intimidated.
Forest Service’s Response
After returning from the trip, Cheyenne Szydlo was afraid to file a complaint, concerned that doing so would hurt her chances of working with the agency again. Six months later Szydlo contacted the agency asking to file a complaint and was told that she would need to provide exact dates, times, and witnesses before being allowed to pursue a formal complaint. Instead of continuing, Syzdlo dropped the complaint, believing that filing a formal complaint would cause too much trouble and produce no results.
Unfortunately, the response Szydlo received from the Forest Service is one that many men and women have received when filing or attempting to file complaints. One African-American woman was told that her supervisor hated black women and wanted to shoot every employee he hated. When the employee reported his actions and threats, she was told to “ignore him.” In other cases, women reported being raped or stalked by Forest Service coworkers or managers only to see their assaulter rehired a few months after being forced to resign.
Women and men who did file complaints or pursued punishment after being advised to ignore harassment or assault were often the victims of retaliatory actions. Friends of men forced to resign would confront victims at worksites to further harass them or verbally assault them. Others were fired and when they complained, they were terminated and attempts to file complaints or draw attention to their past complaints were sabotaged.
If you or someone close to you is the victim of sexual harassment or retaliation in the workplace, consulting an aggressive employment attorney should be your first step. The team at HKM Employment Attorneys is ready to discuss your case and help you determine what course of action is best for you. Contact us today to schedule a consultation at our Denver, Colorado office so that we can begin working with you to decide how best to proceed with your unique situation.