Rachael Harrington-Sanchez started as a firefighter and medic with the Los Pinos Fire Protection District in December 2015. It was her first full-time firefighting job, and she was excited.
Almost four years later, she sued the district, saying she was discriminated against because of her age, sex and racial identity.
The lawsuit has been in the legal system since August 2019 and now awaits a hearing in the U.S. District Court of Colorado in Denver. Harrington-Sanchez ties the alleged discrimination to a workers’ compensation claim, which the district has offered to settle for $50,000. Sitting behind a pile of documents 2 inches tall, Harrington-Sanchez recounted years’ worth of memorized dates and details of legal filings.
“I’m exhausted. I feel like they took everything,” she said.
Harrington-Sanchez, 49, of Bloomfield, New Mexico, started volunteering with the San Juan County Fire Department in 2008, saying her first time responding to a fire was like finding her calling. She went through firefighting, rescue and medical training, and became a certified firefighter and emergency medical technician. Her job with Los Pinos was going to be her first career firefighting position.
After joining the district, Harrington-Sanchez said she began to be mistreated by members of the crew and some higher in the chain of command. The behavior amounted to discrimination based on her identity as a Hispanic woman over the age of 40, she alleged.
She said her personal items were destroyed, sexually explicit material was placed on her locker, and she was “admonished” not to make “Mexican” food, according to the lawsuit.
She received drawings of a ladder being removed from a burning building with her falling to the ground, according to the lawsuit. She was denied a shift change to attend her daughter’s graduation. Harrington-Sanchez argues that her similarly situated male peers were not subject to the same kind of treatment.
When Harrington-Sanchez raised a complaint about discrimination, the district placed her on administrative leave for more than five months for an investigation, Harrington-Sanchez said.
“Whenever Ms. Sanchez complained about discrimination in the workplace, the harassment and mistreatment escalated, ultimately resulting in her termination,” the lawsuit says.
Los Pinos board President Kirk Beck said he was not permitted to comment about personnel matters when asked about the lawsuit. The district’s goal, he said, is to provide the highest level of service its funding will allow. It retains individuals who meet the highest standards, he said.
“Unfortunately, there are times when individuals no longer meet the expectations of the community as emergency responders,” Beck said in an email to The Durango Herald. “In such times, the district must make difficult decisions based on what is safest for our community, not what is financially beneficial to individual LPFPD members.”
Harrington-Sanchez’s lawsuit, filed in 2019, alleges a violation of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act; age, gender and race discrimination; and retaliation, tied to events between 2016 and 2019. Harrington-Sanchez has asked for more than $100,000 in consequential damages, attorney fees and back pay.
Her case also includes a charge of discrimination and right-to-sue notices from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigates and tries to resolve employment complaints.
The EEOC has not made a decision about whether Harrington-Sanchez’s case has merit.
The Herald asked other female employees who worked with Harrington-Sanchez about the case. The women declined to comment or did not respond.
Los Pinos did not respond to requests for information about any other similar complaints, or the lack thereof, over the past five years.
In February 2019, Los Pinos fired Harrington-Sanchez. The district said she had not fulfilled her job duties for an extended period of time because of injuries unrelated to her job, according to the termination letter.
Before she was terminated, the district sent her a letter of reprimand based on three incidents in which she did not follow instructions from her superiors. The letter said Harrington-Sanchez refilled a truck’s antifreeze, picked up heavy hose after a back injury and checked truck engines against orders.
“The district recognizes the physical and emotional demands that are placed on first responders,” Beck said.
Chief Tony Harwig, hired a year ago, “has placed emphasis on the physical and emotional needs of the district’s first responders in order to provide the highest possible level of service to the community,” Beck added.
In response, Harrington-Sanchez has claimed wrongful termination and argues that her injuries were work-related. In August, the fire district offered Harrington-Sanchez a $50,000 workers’ compensation settlement to settle three injury claims. It included an extra $20,000 to also resolve the civil lawsuit. She has not accepted it, saying it will not take care of medical and legal bills or other costs, like transportation.
“I really don’t want to settle for that. I’m done. My whole career is gone,” Harrington-Sanchez said. “I need money to go back to school. Who’s going to hire someone with back problems and knee problems?”