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Firefighter contends his religion led to bias

The Jehovah's Witness files a complaint saying his co-workers made derogatory comments and harassed him.

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000


PINELLAS PARK -- A firefighter who was twice disciplined for sleeping through alarms is contending his co-workers are biased against him because of his religion.

Barac Wimberly filed a complaint against the Pinellas Park Fire Department on March 14. He alleged that the discrimination began Jan. 1, 1997, and has continued since then.

"I am being subjected to derogatory comments about my religion, Jehovah's Witness," Wimberly wrote in his complaint. "I am also being subjected to disciplinary write-ups and harassment because of my religious beliefs."

Wimberly's specific allegations range from complaints that firefighters called Jehovah's Witnesses "Saturday morning streetwalkers" for their custom of going door to door to spread God's word, to charges that somebody hard-boiled some eggs that he left in the station.

Wimberly, a St. Petersburg resident, said Tuesday that one reason he finally decided to file the complaint was because he has been accused of being too sensitive.

"It's been a compilation of things. It's finally to the point where I feel like everything I do to try to benefit myself . . . someone files a complaint," he said. "It was more to get an external investigation of things that were going on. . . . It was more so of getting an unbiased opinion of what was going on."

Wimberly added, "I was trying to make the best of it . . . trying to do the best I could for my career. . . . As time went on, I saw a pattern that people were picking me out as a target."

That pattern, he said, included calls to the newspaper about his activities and unsubstantiated claims to the chief and other officers.

"I felt these accusations were slanderous in nature and hurt me," he said.

Wimberly said he complained to the city in the past, and officials there found no problems. But he was not satisfied with that investigation because it was like the "fox guarding the henhouse."

"I got fed up with people slandering me. I know without a doubt they're trying to get my job, get me fired," Wimberly said.

The bias complaint was filed through the Community Affairs Department for the city of St. Petersburg. The Human Relations Division of that department acts as a neutral investigatory agency for allegations of discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

"I'm not at liberty to make comments about it. The attorneys are making the city's reply on this matter," Pinellas Park fire Chief Ken Cramer said. "We are taking it as an extremely serious matter."

Firefighter/medical technician Wimberly, 28, has worked for the Pinellas Park Fire Department since Dec. 19, 1994.

In 1998, he received an oral warning when a supervisor told him, in effect, to be more of a team player. He also was reprimanded for being late to work. Both warnings were noted in his personnel file, but he was not punished.

Wimberly's troubles began escalating last year.

He received a written reprimand for sleeping through an alarm. At the time, Wimberly was wearing earplugs to drown out other firefighters' snoring. The earplugs prevented him from answering a fire alarm that related to people possibly being trapped inside a mobile home. No one was trapped, but one man was treated at the scene for smoke inhalation.

At the time, Wimberly accepted fault for that, saying, "I acknowledge that I made a mistake there. That was poor judgment on my part."

Shortly after, Wimberly was reprimanded in writing and suspended for half of a 24-hour shift for leaving medical waste, such as needles and bandages, and a blood pressure cuff and other equipment in someone's home after a medical call.

After that, he was given a three-day suspension without pay for sleeping through an alarm that alerted firefighters and paramedics to a car accident. Wimberly appealed that discipline to City Manager Jerry Mudd.

Mudd partially sided with Wimberly and restored two days' pay to him.

The city manager said Wimberly was at fault for not informing the shift supervisor that he was on medication that could cause drowsiness. But Mudd also criticized Wimberly's co-workers, saying that they should have wakened him.

"Some consideration should be accorded to Barac for the failure of the other employees to awaken him," Mudd wrote in his report at the time.

Wimberly said at the time that he was dissatisfied with Mudd's decision because the medicine was only a "possible" reason he had overslept. He also said he did not plan to appeal Mudd's decision.

The matter appeared to have been settled until Wimberly filed his bias claim.

In his complaint, Wimberly says he has "always performed my duties competently" and blames his difficulties on religious bias.

His charges of religious discrimination include:

Co-workers often asked why Wimberly doesn't celebrate holidays, such as Christmas. One acting supervisor allegedly asked him why he accepts a Christmas bonus if he doesn't celebrate the holiday.

"Co-workers have joked about Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on doors, calling them Saturday morning streetwalkers."

After arguing with one firefighter/paramedic about his religion, the man asked Wimberly why Jehovah's Witnesses were coming to his door. He also told Wimberly that he disagreed with Jehovah's Witness' interpretation of the Bible. Shortly after, the man allegedly began filing complaints against him that could not be substantiated.

He refused to take the fire union oath as written and was accused of "elevating myself above everyone else. I also was accused of trying to get the oath changed."

He declined to help decorate the fire truck during the winter holidays because of his religious beliefs. An acting supervisor "accused me of using my religion to get out of job duties. He told me to leave my religion at home."

"I was written up for not being a "team player,' in part because I did not participate in the holiday activities." The acting supervisor "was not disciplined for his derogatory views toward my religion."

"In 1999, I have been written up for sleeping through two alarm tones. Firefighters work in a team environment, and it is the standard practice to wake somebody up if they did not hear the tone. To my knowledge, no other firefighter has been left sleeping at the station."

"Somebody hard-boiled my eggs that I kept at the station. Someone also wrote "dumb a-' on my bag of potato chips."

"There is a double standard when it comes to enforcing seniority "rights.' When I was on probation, I was told that probationary employees could not drive the rescue truck. Now, recent hires are allowed to drive the truck. When I attempted to sit in a particular spot on the truck, I was told I could not sit there. When I have attempted to use my seniority powers, I have been told that seniority is not considered."

Wimberly concluded, "I believe if I were not a Jehovah's Witness, I would not be subjected to derogatory comments about my religion. I also believe that I am being harassed and subjected to disciplinary action because of my religious beliefs."

Wimberly's complaints do not mention his latest job evaluation, which said that he did not meet expectations. Cramer, the fire chief, confirmed that the poor evaluation meant that Wimberly did not receive a scheduled raise, though that could change in the future.

Wimberly said he does address the issue of poor job evaluations in his bias complaint. He did not mention the lack of raise, he said, because that was tied to the job evaluation issue.

Cramer said Wimberly is not the first to be denied a raise because of a poor evaluation.

"This is not the first time," Cramer said. "It's happened before to other people in the city."

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