Mo. city officials agree to $800K settlement in FF’s sexual harassment lawsuit
An internal investigation found that Kansas City Firefighter Brenda Paikowski was “more likely than not” subjected to three years of harassment in violation of city policies
By Mike Hendricks, Glenn E. Rice
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City has tentatively agreed to spend $800,000 to settle a lawsuit that an assistant division chief in the fire department filed, claiming she was subjected to ongoing harassment for three years until resigning from her six-figure job last month.
Brenda Paikowski’s ordeal began, she said, after she complained in June 2020 about a swimsuit calendar in the kitchen of the mostly male fire station where she was temporarily assigned after her regular station was closed for health reasons.
Working at that new station, No. 15 in the Northland, became “psychologically unbearable” from then on, Paikowski claimed, and said she got little to no support from department management.
An internal investigation by the city’s human resources department found that Paikowski had “more likely than not” been subjected to conduct that was in violation of city policies, including the inappropriate display of material of a sexual nature and “a hostile work environment on the basis of sex and retaliation.”
Yet the harassment did not cease even after that finding, she said, and firefighters at Station 15 received no training on sexual harassment.
The settlement is set to come up for City Council consideration on Thursday. The council’s finance committee recommended approval on Wednesday. At that meeting, Mayor Quinton Lucas said the council needs to ensure that the underlying conduct Paikowski described is no longer tolerated and asked that City Manager Brian Platt give the council an update on the city’s progress in countering discrimination within the fire department.
The U.S. Justice Department began investigating longstanding allegations of racial discrimination within the fire department after The Star published a series of stories in December 2020 detailing systemic racism and sex discrimination within the organization. The city also conducted its own investigation. That report was never made public.
The city also produced a cultural assessment report, which described a fire department where Black and women members were subject to bias. The city has in recent years spent millions of dollars in settlements and paid multi-million-dollar jury awards to both current and former firefighters who have alleged discrimination on the basis on race or gender.
Paikowski’s case was set to go to trial in April. The settlement ends that litigation, and Paikowski has agreed not to bring a companion lawsuit for “constructive discharge,” which is the legal term for when someone feels they have no choice but to quit their job due to unbearable working conditions.
She did not respond to requests for comment. Her attorneys at the Employee Rights Law Firm declined comment.
Paikowski became a department employee in 2010 along with 350 co-workers who had been employed by MAST Ambulance Service, which the city absorbed that year. It was a clash of cultures. MAST emergency medical technicians had roved the city in their ambulances awaiting emergency calls. Suddenly, they were based at the city’s fire houses, and some members of the male-dominated “brotherhood” saw the newcomers as interlopers, according to Paikowski and others.
‘Treated disrespectfully’For the 13 years she was employed by the Kansas City Fire Department, Paikowski never felt welcome, according to court documents.
“During this time period, even though she successfully performed her duties, showed up and gave the department 100%, she still was treated disrespectfully, with hostility and with no regard for common courtesies which should be expected in the workplace,” according to a motion attorney Christie Jess filed on her behalf this past July.
“The fact that she was a woman and had the temerity to insist that the male fire personnel abide by department policy, federal and state laws and common decency was seen as disloyal deserving a hostile and disrespectful conduct.”
According to her lawsuit, the swimsuit calendar was removed shortly after she reported it to her superiors in June of 2020. Soon after that, someone put a picture of a squirrel wearing a bikini on a whiteboard in the station and wrote “New Station Logo?” next to it. Squirrel is a derogatory term in the department for outcasts.
Paikowski said she felt a hostile vibe at other times, as well, such as when a male firefighter shouted, “I ain’t afraid of no vagina,” during a shift change while she was seated in her office.
The day after she received notice in January 2021 that the human resources department investigation was finished, someone wrote a sexually explicit joke on the station whiteboard under a list of things needed at the station.
Paikowski says management was no help stemming continuing harassment that continued into this year, when she finally quit.
“From her initial complaint to today, upper management of the fire department has done nothing to support Paikowki, nor stop the retaliation and hostile work environment,” the July legal motion said.
The motion also noted that Paikowski’s husband, another former MAST employee who still works at the fire department, filed an internal harassment complaint in 2022 against fire department management for allegedly retaliating against him after his wife filed her lawsuit against the city.
He has not sued.
Her lawsuit says the hostile, juvenile behavior Paikowski encountered mirrored some of the conduct described in an outside consultant’s cultural assessment of the department presented to the council in February.
That report found that some firefighters grabbed other firefighters in sexually inappropriate ways and that some firefighters directed racial slurs at other firefighters It also found that firefighters were more careless about damaging homes in poorer neighborhoods and celebrated dangerous driving that caused crashes.
The report, also prompted by The Star’s series of articles, said the culture inside KCFD is one where bullying, intimidation and hazing are common. Many Black and female firefighters said they fear retaliation if they speak out. Women and non-white firefighters are often denied promotion based on their race and gender. It is common for firefighters to tell inappropriate jokes and make slurs about a colleague’s race, gender or sexual orientation.
In response to the suit, the city said it “continues to make strides toward improving working conditions for all employees, including the Kansas City Fire Department.”
It included a previously released three-page, single-spaced list of efforts the department has undertaken since The Star’s investigation was published. Among them:
“Revision of the city’s zero tolerance policy to: specifically include racism, gender/LGBTQ discrimination, require more aggressive use of placing accused employees in an off-duty status without pay and/or temporarily reassigning the employee(s) to another work location or work shift pending completion of the investigation.”