Since 1958 the Bay Shore Brightwaters Rescue Ambulance (BSBRA), a volunteer non-profit organization, has provided Emergency Medical Service to the communities of Bay Shore, Brightwaters and West Bay Shore and to the residents of Fire Island via the Bay Shore Ferries.

According to BSBRA’s web site, “our volunteers are highly dedicated, spending hundreds, and in many cases, thousands of hours every year training to become the best possible EMS providers…. In 2009, Bay Shore-Brightwaters was named “EMS Agency of the Year” from Suffolk County and NYS Department of Health…. Today, BSBRA is one of the top responding ambulance corps in the town of Islip. We have 24-hour crew in house, a yearly under 1.5% no response rate, as well as a full and active membership.”

In 2015 BSBRA held a holiday party held a holiday party that featured a crude gingerbread house — with gummy bears arranged to simulate group sex and the words “sexual harassment in progress” written in icing on the roof of the house. Two EMTs who were at the party described the gingerbread house and included pictures of it in their Federal lawsuit against BSBRA which was filed in Federal Court two days ago.

According to the lawsuit, as relayed by Patch (the complaint is not available at this time), the gingerbread house had gummy bears placed in “sexual positions,” the words “Ho, Ho, Ho” directed toward them, hand-drawn pictures of a hand giving the middle finger and other profanities. It was made by a member and placed in a common area.

Defendant Raymis Ruiz claims she was subjected to sexual harassment, sexual rumors, bullying unwanted sexual comments, remarks and behavior by another member.  Defendant John Messing, who was Ruiz’s captain, tried to help her to complain about the harassment to superiors but was told to “mind his business.” According to the lawsuit, Messing was fired for reporting sexual harassment and for supporting Ruiz.

If these facts are true, it was east to spot this case as sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment is not just offensive, it is a form of discrimination in violation of Federal and State Law. It is a violation of Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 and New York Executive Order No. 19 Issued 5/31/83.

Federal law defines illegal sexual harassment as: “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct or sexual nature… when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.” (EEOC Guidelines, 29 C.F.R. §1604.11).

Sexual harassment is defined by New York State as “any unwanted verbal or physical advances, sexually explicit derogatory statements, or sexually discriminatory remarks made by someone in a workplace or educational setting which are offensive or objectionable to the recipient, cause the recipient discomfort or humiliation, or interfere with the recipient’s job performance or educational progress.” It is deemed to include:

• Visual harassment; posters, magazines, calendars etc.
• Verbal harassment or abuse: repeated requests for dates, lewd comments sexually explicit jokes, whistling etc.
• Written Harassment: Love poems, letters, graffiti
• Offensive gestures
• Subtle pressure for sexual activities
• Unnecessary touching, patting, pinching or kissing.
• Leering or ogling
• Brushing up against another’s body.
• Promise of promotions, favorable performance evaluations or grades, etc in return for sexual favors
• Demanding sexual favors accompanied by implied or overt threats to a person’s job, promotion, performance evaluation, grade, etc.
• Physical assault, rape.

The International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services has reported that “as many as 85% of women firefighters have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work or as volunteers.” Yet, most instances of sexual harassment are not reported for one reason or another, perhaps because the victim is threatened with intimidation or because she feels nothing will happen or she just has to put up with the abuse.

New York encourages organizations to development their own policies on sexual harassment. The policies should include a notice given to all members that sexual harassment is not to be tolerated – and is a violation of the law that could subject the member to discipline and the member and the department to liability. It should also include a provision that discipline will be taken against supervisors who knowingly permit the harassing behavior to take place.

Policies should also include a procedure for the following:

• How to file a complaint of sexual harassment;
• Who the complaint should be made to;
• What form the complaint should take; and
• the procedure that the department will follow in investigating the complaint.

Training in sensitivity and procedures should accompany the written policy. If your department becomes the subject of a harassment claim it would be nice to be able NOT to say that the department had no policies regarding harassment or procedures for handling complaints.

I have reviewed, and drafted, harassment policies for private and non-profit companies, for fire departments and ambulance corps. The best policy, which is from an ambulance corps but redacted for confidentiality purposes (and because I did not ask for permission) is attached:  Sexual Harassment Policy.

While templates for a sexual harassment policy abound, the crux is obviously action and enforcement, not simple templates. All complaints of harassment must be investigated within a very short window, in compliance with the policy, in a confidential manner. Any member who is found after appropriate investigation to have engaged in harassment of another member must be subject to appropriate disciplinary action, depending upon the circumstance, up to and including termination. No member or employee will be subject to any form of retaliation or discipline for pursuing any harassment complaint.