Being one of the few women among the male-dominated ranks of firefighters is likely hard enough. One Broward emergency worker says the job came with a series of sexual-discrimination incidents, according to a lawsuit she recently filed in federal court.
The alleged harassment included a lot of unflattering comments about Joanne Levings' physique and culminated when coworkers hired someone in a gorilla suit to run through a work event, court documents say.
"This is a woman who has 29 years on the job with a stellar background," says Levings' attorney, A. Andrew OBeidy.
The pattern began back in March 2008, OBeidy says. Levings was stationed at the airport firehouse. While she was absent during roll-call session, battalion chief Marc Cohen allegedly made a comment to the rest of the crew that Levings was "fucking her brothers" (as in, screwing them over).
Word about the comment wormed back to Levings, and she made a complaint about Cohen's words. The higher-up then began harassing her with a series of actions, the lawsuit claims. Levings was told she was taking too long in the bathroom. She was reprimanded for the fuel levels of a transportation van. Cohen allegedly stuck his middle-finger in a picture of Levings printed on a cake.
He also allegedly denied Levings emergency leave and mentioned he would "get even" with her for the complaint. Levings also got in trouble for not having her shirt tucked in and was ordered to take out her earrings, even though the men at the stations were never sanctioned for similar behavior. One day, Levings was allegedly told she had an interview that day for a promotion -- no warning or time to prepare. Men at the station were given fair warning in such cases, the suit says.
In January 2010, another firefighter testified in a hearing regarding the situation. He "made derogatory comments" about Levings' "physical size and buttocks, comparing" her "to a gorilla." He also "joked that he was afraid of going to the zoo and watching the female apes because they reminded him of" Levings.
That characterization seemed to have stuck. In June 2010, during a social event at the firehouse, someone hired a person in a gorilla suit to run through the proceedings. The monkey business was caught on tape and uploaded to YouTube as "Firehouse Gorilla."
This appears to be it:
Levings lawyer says the stunt was all about mocking his client. "She was mortified at the harassment that she was receiving," he says. "She pretty much had to avoid being in any public social setting with these guys."
The brass at the fire department -- which falls under the Broward Sheriff's Office -- did nothing about Levings' complaints of harassment, the suit claims. "Nothing has happened," OBeidy says. "Other than her getting targeted."
Despite filing a lawsuit charging gender harassment and discrimination, Levings is still working at the fire department. "I think she still falls under the command of some of the alleged harassers," her attorney says.
BSO declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Send your story tips to the author, Kyle Swenson.