WASHINGTON, Dec. 1, 2016 – Witnesses provided a House committee Thursday with dramatically different descriptions of the workplace culture at the U.S. Forest Service – Several said sexual harassment of women was a problem at the USDA agency, while government officials said harassment complaints were at record lows.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, noted that the same committee held a hearing on the same issue back in 2008, and that he has not been impressed by the progress since then.
“After eight years in the current situation we need to review what has changed and what still needs to be fixed,” Chaffetz said. “And based on what we've been reading leading up to this hearing, it doesn't look good – not in the least.”
One witness – fire prevention technician Denice Rice – said she was a victim of harassment and described how it affected her personally and professionally. A visibly emotional Rice recounted her treatment at the hands of a supervisor that she and many of the members of Congress on hand felt was inadequately disciplined.
“It was widely known that my second-line supervisor was a bully, abusive, and a womanizer to female employees for years and nobody did anything about it.” Rice said. “Women were afraid to complain and the one who did report him ended up leaving the agency. He was never held accountable.”
In Rice’s case, her harasser was identified in a Huffington Post long-form article, “Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream.” as Rice’s “boss’s boss.” She says the man verbally harassed her and did things like following her into the restroom. She filed charges after an incident in 2011. Investigations ensued, and the supervisor eventually retired after being informed that he was going to be fired. He then was hired on as a contractor, and in that capacity he was recently asked to give a motivational speech to a group of firefighters.
“They are still supporting him while I have continued to be harassed by the same individuals that protected him before he left,” Rice said. “I know what happened to me happens to women all over the Region and Forest Service.” Rice was referring to USFS Region 5, which is mostly California.
Lesa Donnelly is the vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees where she works with victims like Rice. She told lawmakers that there had been progress in the fight against sexual harassment until about eight years ago when the progress stopped. She says she wished she could point to an area of improvement under the Obama administration and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but she said she could not.
“Things have gotten worse in terms of the blatant harassment against women, minorities, people with disabilities,” Donnelly said. She cited a “complete disengagement” on the issue by Vilsack, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, and Joe Leonard, USDA’s assistant secretary for civil rights.
“Our request has been very simple: It’s to merely sit down and start talking, have a dialogue to talk about the issues and exchange ideas and move towards resolution,” she said. “Secretary Vilsack and Dr. Leonard and Chief Tidwell have absolutely not wanted to do that and the conditions for employees have worsened.”
Donnelly said she’s heard that reports of rape have increased in the last eight years, “but women are afraid to come forward and report it” for fear of retaliation in the workplace.
USDA spokeswoman Cathy Cochran said in an email to Agri-Pulse that improving USDA’s civil rights record “has been a top priority” for Vilsack. She said USDA and the Forest Service have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, and “as a result of measures implemented in the last several years, (Equal Employment Opportunity) complaints within the Forest Service have consistently declined over the last five years.”
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When asked about the matter at the hearing, Leonard pointed to figures showing a decrease in complaints since 2001. “We’ve made generational change in the last seven years, I promise you,” he said.
Lenise Lago, the deputy chief for business operations at the Forest Service, said these types of complaints were actually at their lowest levels in the last five years. She was asked repeatedly by lawmakers why people Rice’s former supervisor were allowed to retire rather than being fired for the misconduct. She said option of retirement is written into law and that Tidwell asked her to implore the committee to make it easier to fire people rather than allow them to retire, retain their benefits, and avoid the kind of professional implications that might come as a result of termination.
But Donnelly and Rice dismissed the zero tolerance policy as lip service. Donnelly in particular pointed to a number of lawsuits that have been filed alleging harassment, but to little avail. The culture of the units fighting forest fires across the country remains largely unchanged, they said. While disagreement among witnesses at a congressional hearing is hardly a new development, Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member, said the split in this case was unheard of.
“As I listen to Ms. Lago and I listen to (Donnelly), it sounds like we’re talking about two different worlds,” he said. “It’s like night and day, and I’ve never seen testimony so far apart.”
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