Former FF-medic to sue Ore. fire district after labor bureau finds gender discrimination

A report by the state found that former Knappa Fire District Firefighter-Paramedic Amy Lenz was not promoted while her male co-workers were

Erick Bengel
The Daily Astorian, Ore.

ASTORIA, Ore. — A former emergency medical services officer with the Knappa Fire District intends to sue over an alleged pattern of gender discrimination she experienced on the job.

The state Bureau of Labor and Industries found substantial evidence in December 2020 that the fire district denied Amy Lenz, a longtime paramedic firefighter, opportunities for career advancement that were extended to her male colleagues.

The bureau found that two women were not given the same chances as men were to participate in training needed to advance professionally. And women on the crew were subjected to sexist and degrading comments.
The bureau found that two women were not given the same chances as men were to participate in training needed to advance professionally. And women on the crew were subjected to sexist and degrading comments. (Photo/Knappa Fire District via Facebook)

The case was referred to the bureau's administrative prosecution unit, which last summer declined to press formal charges.

Lenz has retained Dolan Law Group PC, a Portland-based firm, and plans to pursue a lawsuit against the fire district.

In the Bureau of Labor and Industries' report, the fire district under former Fire Chief Paul Olheiser was described as a department for "good ol' boys."

The bureau's report found that Lenz was not promoted to the rank of lieutenant, which fire district policy says is required experience for someone in her position as EMS officer. She had held this position since 2005.

Promotions, however, were given to males who held officer positions.

Although both Olheiser and Sue Stunkard, a fire district board member, said Lenz did not apply for the lieutenant rank, they acknowledged that the fire district did not have a formal application process in place. In the absence of a process, promotions happened by appointment and at the chief's discretion.

Lenz was "both the only woman to hold an officer role and was also the only officer who was not given the lieutenant ranking," the report said.

"Chief Olheiser was unable to explain why he had not given (Lenz) an officer ranking and therefore could not provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for his actions," the report said.

Fire Chief Kurt Donaldson put a formal application process in place after he replaced Olheiser in 2019.

The bureau found that Lenz and another female colleague were not given the same chances to participate in training needed to advance professionally.

In addition, women on the crew were subjected to sexist and degrading comments.

One male coworker described a woman as "too fat and short to be a firefighter" and claimed that women "should not (be) on the fire service," the report said.

This same coworker "refused to let the women perform certain aspects of their jobs, berated and demeaned them in front of others, including new recruits, and may have affected the way others in the fire district perceived or treated" the women on staff, the report said.

Lenz discussed the harassment and discriminatory treatment with Olheiser, who did not take corrective measures.

She also shared her concerns with Stunkard and the rest of the fire board, but the unprofessional behavior went unaddressed.

Olheiser also made it clear he did not appreciate that Lenz had gone to the board, according to the report.

In April 2019, Lenz was "suspended from conflagration fires for one year." The following November, she discovered that the fire district had "replaced her as EMS officer without notifying her." Lenz, who had been with the district since 2003, perceived these moves as retaliation.

Lenz filed her complaint the next month.

The Bureau of Labor and Industries' report said the fire district denied many of the allegations, including that women on staff were denied career opportunities based on their gender. The district said in its defense that Lenz had "never officially reported unlawful conduct to the board, and only raised concerns during an unofficial get-together of board members."

The report, however, found that "admissions, witness statements and text messages are substantial evidence that (Lenz) reported gender discrimination to Chief Olheiser, Sue Stunkard, and to the board, and that (the district) did not take immediate or appropriate corrective action."

Asked about the state's findings and Lenz's potential lawsuit, Donaldson said the fire district does not comment on personnel matters.

It is worth discussing, he said, "how woefully unrepresented women are in the American fire service overall."

Donaldson said the fire service "should strive to look like the folks that we work for, and we don't."

The fire chief said, "We as a service need to be doing everything we can to get more equal representation in our ranks."


(c)2021 The Daily Astorian, Ore.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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