$800K suit: Hillsboro Fire & Rescue chiefs favor white males
Three current Hillsboro Fire & Rescue employees are accusing the two highest-ranking officials at the department of sex, race, age and disability discrimination, as well as retaliation and creating a hostile workplace, according to a recently filed complaint.
Among other allegations, the complaint claims that senior leadership at the fire department have favored white, male candidates for jobs over female and non-white candidates who were more qualified. It also alleges that plaintiffs faced retaliation and hostility from department leadership when they reported concerns.
The three plaintiffs — Capt. Anne Raven, Deputy Fire Marshal Miguel Bautista and firefighter-paramedic Paul Harvey — come from different backgrounds and have had distinct experiences working for Hillsboro Fire & Rescue. But their stories share some common threads, painting a picture of Hillsboro Fire & Rescue as an unfriendly environment for women and people of color.
"The City of Hillsboro prides itself on its diversity, equity, and inclusion, stating that it is an essential part of the delivery of city services. Yet in reality, the City of Hillsboro condones and perpetuates a system mired in sexism, racism, and ableism," the introduction to the complaint states in part.
The complaint against the Hillsboro government, Fire Chief David Downey and Deputy Chief Jeff Gurske was filed Monday, April 5, in Washington County Circuit Court. It seeks more than $800,000 in damages.
A city spokesperson said in an email that Hillsboro's city attorney is working to respond to the complaint.
"Ensuring a respectful workplace is a Citywide priority," Patrick Preston added. "All City employees are required to adhere to City policies that prohibit discrimination and harassment. The individuals who are a part of the City of Hillsboro Fire & Rescue Department are outstanding public servants, and we will continue our work to ensure they can provide equitable fire protection and life safety services for all community members."
Raven was hired by Hillsboro Fire & Rescue in 2015 after spending 10 years as a firefighter in Philadelphia, where she rose to the rank of captain.
While in Hillsboro, she received awards, sat on multiple regional public safety boards and committees, wrote protocols that have been adopted by agencies throughout the Portland metro region, and is currently working on two studies in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Defense, the complaint says. She is also in charge of Hillsboro's entire CPR program.
Despite applying for leadership positions for which she was qualified, including division chief, Raven has never been promoted at Hillsboro Fire & Rescue, the complaint says.
Last September, while Raven was applying for a division chief position, Gurske allegedly told Raven she wasn't well-liked within the department and that she would need to "win over the guys" in the department if she wanted to get ahead, the complaint says.
He added that she would "never promote without him in [her] corner," according to the complaint.
Gurske's comments came after Raven complained to him about feeling discriminated against based on her gender.
When Gurske asked for examples, "Raven reached over to her desk and pulled out her nameplate. A male fire chief had replaced her name with a nickname that meant she was 'crazy,'" the complaint reads.
The complaint also alleges that Gurske changed a male recruit's failing grade on a written exam to a passing one but terminated a female recruit from the same class for "one small error" in her practical exam. When Raven challenged Gurske over changing the male recruit's grade, the complaint states, she was disciplined. Gurske allegedly brought up that disciplinary action when Raven interviewed for the division chief position last November.
Also included in the complaint is an allegation that Gurske failed to report sexual harassment complaints Raven made about another, unnamed Hillsboro Fire & Rescue official to human resources, telling her it wasn't a reportable offense.
A human resources investigation into the offical was triggered months later after Raven brought the issue to Downey's attention.
After finding out the employee would be demoted, not fired, Raven questioned her future with the department to Downey. He responded by suggesting she should move on from the department, saying it would "never be easy for (her) there."
Bautista has served as deputy fire marshal with Hillsboro Fire & Rescue since 2016 and has served in fire departments since 2005. He also applied and was rejected for a division chief position last year, the complaint states.
Gurske allegedly told Bautista, who leads Hillsboro Fire & Rescue's Latino community outreach program, that he "was the most qualified candidate, communicated well in the interview, and provided personal experiences that impressed the panel," the complaint reads. The job instead went to a white candidate with lesser qualifications and credentials for the job, the complaint adds.
Gurske allegedly told Bautista that fire officials "decided that his transition into the position would be 'too much to overcome' and 'not be well received' by the rest of the department," the complaint reads. When Bautista asked for clarification, Gurske said the department was not "mature enough" to give him the position, the complaint adds.
Rebecca Cambreleng, an attorney for the three plaintiffs, said in an interview that Bautista believes he wasn't selected in part because of his race, as well as because he had previously protested employees not being paid appropriately for on-the-job training.
According to the complaint, when he raised that payment issue with superiors in 2018, he was threatened with disciplinary action. When he anonymously notified the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, which investigated and confirmed there was an error in the process, Gurske and other department officials allegedly retaliated against him.
Gurske filed a public records request with BOLI to "ferret out" who had tipped the state agency off, the complaint says.
BOLI mistakenly disclosed to Gurske that Bautista filed the complaint, according to Cambreleng.
Bautista was later asked to step down from an elected position with the IAAI, and he was removed from his position in a mentoring program through Hillsboro, according to the complaint.
Harvey has worked for Hillsboro as a firefighter/paramedic since 2000, receiving more than 25 certifications and multiple awards, the complaint says.
According to the complaint, Harvey, 57, faced discrimination based on his age and disabilities, which stemmed from the physically taxing work of 20 years with the department.
Like the other plaintiffs, Harvey was also allegedly denied a promotion after raising concerns about the department, the complaint says.
Harvey's ability to work was limited after he was injured twice on the job in 2018, the complaint says.
Although Hillsboro accepted Harvey's worker's compensation claim for the first injury, human resources officials questioned the validity of a second injury to his back, which the complaint says he suffered after returning from the first injury, causing him significant pain and limiting his ability to walk. The city eventually denied that claim, according to the complaint, forcing Harvey to use more than 500 hours of sick and vacation time for surgery and recovery, according to the complaint.
The complaint says Harvey won an appeal of the decision, but sick and vacation time Harvey used for treatment has not been credited back to him.
In late 2020, Gurske refused to hire Harvey to for an open deputy fire marshal position, for which he was overqualified and able to do despite his injuries, the complaint says.
Harvey had been assigned to light duty and was evaluating recruits with Raven at the time.
According to the complaint, Harvey also observed Gurske falsifying male recruits' failing grades and reported the issue to human resources.
At one point, the complaint alleges, Gurske called Harvey and asked him to find a way to pass a recruit. After Harvey refused the request, it adds, Gurske accused him of incompetence and removed him from his recruit training duties.
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