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Firefighter off for one day for ‘disrespect’

Friday, February 1, 2019 by Jo Clifton

After finding that a male firefighter under his command spoke in a disrespectful manner to a female firefighter, Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker suspended the firefighter for just one day, to the dismay of the female firefighter. Baker did not characterize the language as sexual harassment or intended to create a hostile work environment.

Baker decided on the suspension after Captain Christine Jones complained about being harassed by Captain Roger Scarcliff because of her gender. Scarcliff agreed to take a one-day suspension and not appeal the finding, according to a notice to all Fire Department personnel. The suspension would have been for five days had he not waived his rights, the notice says.

Jones, who has been an Austin firefighter for more than 20 years, told the Austin Monitor on Thursday, “Unfortunately, under the leadership of the new fire chief, I recently found myself a victim of harassment that was met with the same apathy towards women that I and others in the AFD had been experiencing for years.”

Women make up just about 8 percent of the city’s 1,150 firefighters, according to a department spokesperson.

Jones, in an email to the Monitor, said when the chance to pick a new chief came up, “I was hopeful that the new fire chief would have been carefully vetted to make sure he or she was capable of solving this huge and persistent problem” of sexual harassment.

Baker declined to comment and Scarcliff did not respond to an emailed request for comment. Scarcliff signed the memo from Baker indicating that he would serve his one-day suspension on Jan. 17.

Events unfolded after Jones was selected to lead a class on the department’s harassment prevention policy on Oct. 30. According to Jones and the memo from Baker, not long after the class concluded, Scarcliff told other male firefighters that Jones would next be teaching “a class on the difference between a bitch and a whore.” He made the statement in front of Jones, who says she tried to talk to Scarcliff to resolve the situation, “but to my surprise I was told by this senior member of the department that he did this to ‘teach me a lesson.'”

After the training, Jones saw a small group of firefighters gathered around a computer looking at car videos. Scarcliff asked Jones “if she would rather talk about hair, makeup, or clothes,” according to a memo from Baker to Joya Hayes in her capacity as director of civil service for the city. The memo explaining Scarcliff’s suspension also said that Scarcliff made comments about how “women should be doing the cleaning and dusting.”

Jones said she decided to file the complaint after her attempt to discuss the matter with Scarcliff was unsuccessful. However, Chief Baker wrote, “I believe Captain Scarcliff’s apology to Captain Jones was sincere when he realized he had offended her.”

According to Chief Baker’s memo, Scarcliff did not deny making the comments, but attempted to explain them in a better light.

“Captain Scarcliff stated that these comments were not directed at Captain Jones because of her gender, but rather, it was inter-office joking and banter among the staff and intended to make Captain Jones feel included in the camaraderie of the group … Finally, Captain Scarcliff stated that Captain Jones has used profanity in the workplace, which undermined his efforts to address the use of profanity in the workplace.”

In the memo, Baker said he did not think Scarcliff’s comments were “intended to harass or create a hostile work environment for Captain Jones based upon her gender.” Baker said if he believed that was the case, “the discipline in this matter would be significantly harsher, including potentially an indefinite suspension. I believe that Captain Scarcliff did not act with malice or with the intent to discriminate against Captain Jones due to her gender but rather, I believe this behavior is more appropriately characterized as horseplay among coworkers.”

In describing the events leading up to Baker’s decision, Jones said that the Austin Firefighters Association requested that she be afforded an opportunity to speak with the department leadership assigned to review the case and recommend discipline. However, that request was denied. According to Jones, the union “also requested that a female officer be available to this disciplinary proceeding to provide perspective. This request was initially granted by the interim fire chief, but on the day of the meeting Chief Baker (who had by then taken over the job) dismissed her from the room. Due to these missteps by fire department management, I felt completely shut out of the process.”

In her email, Jones decried the lack of a “single woman leader involved” in the process. She continued: “it is perhaps unsurprising that not only did Chief Baker not find that the senior officer committed harassment, he specifically determined that the harassment was nothing more than ‘horseplay.’ It is unconscionable that the fire chief would conclude that unwelcome and unsolicited statements attacking someone’s gender and insinuating that a woman is a bitch and a whore is merely horseplay.”

Baker did state in his memo that “Captain Scarcliff is hereby put on notice that any future behavior that leads me to question his leadership may result in disciplinary action, up to and including indefinite suspension or a recommendation of demotion to a nonsupervisory rank.”

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Photo by atmtx made available through a Creative Commons license.

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