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Firefighter wins whistleblower retaliation complaint against US Forest Service

An administrative judge has awarded $115,000 in restitution to a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter who sued the agency after he was “shadowed” for speaking out publicly about lax coronavirus safety regulations at the height of the pandemic.

“I couldn’t believe it at first,” said firefighter Pedro Rios, speaking in public for the first time since the verdict. “It was a flood of emotions.”

The decision, made in late February by Judge Michael S. Shachat with the Committee to Defend the US Merit System, the agency that oversees federal employee disputes, comes from two federal complaints filed last year by Rios, a firefighter with over 13 years of experience.

Shachat wrote in her ruling: “All agency employees have the right to raise legitimate concerns in the workplace without fear of reprisal. “I see that there is clear evidence of a motive for retaliation on the part of the agency.”

In an emailed statement, a Forest Service spokesman said he was “aware” of the judge’s ruling but declined to comment further.

Rios initially sued the Forest Service in February 2021 after he was denied the right to rehire, the hiring process federal firefighters go through every fire season, after a social media post criticized his management’s lax handling of Covid safety guidelines.

In one The message was posted to the Facebook community page in July 2020Rios warned residents of a small Northern California county that his fire brigade would return home to the Klamath National Forest without first being quarantined after it spent a week in Southern California, which is considered a hot spot of Covid-19 at that time.

He went on to post a screenshot showing the names of Klamath National Forest officers, whom community members can contact with questions or concerns.

At the heart of Rios’ fears are his son’s severe asthma and worries about what might happen if the boy contracts Covid, he said.

Pedro Rios and his son, Felix Bell-Rios, 4, outside their home in Weed, California, on February 23, 2021.
Pedro Rios and his son, Felix Bell-Rios, 4, outside their home in Weed, California, on February 23, 2021.
Katie Falkenberg / for NBC News

Within hours of the post being published, Rios was questioned by his team leader, who called his behavior “unprofessional” and warned him that he had “rocked boat”.

His application for the upcoming fire season was later denied despite receiving rave reviews for his performance.

In his ruling, Shachat said Rios’ social media post “did not break any rules and raised legitimate concerns through the only forum where he felt he was available to do so.” so”.

Rios’ attorney, Tom Dimitre, said the ruling could open the door for future accusers without fear of losing their jobs.

“The decision itself makes it clear that the Forest Service does retaliate against whistleblowers, and I hope that other officers will use that as an incentive to hold the Forest Service accountable,” he said.

“Whether the Forest Service will actually change their operations based on this decision, I’m pretty doubtful of that.”

Rios, who has moved to Arizona and is working as a private firefighter, said he hopes Forest Service employees will feel empowered to speak honestly about conditions on the field. .

“If all the complainers were fired, they would have no one left,” he said of the Forest Service, which has struggled in recent years due to downsizing as firefighters search for survivors. more lucrative jobs with state agencies and cities. “It seems like management is not always listening to what the firefighters are trying to tell them.”

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