Arbitrator Overturns Firefighter Hazing Terminations

Written on 09/11/2021
Will Aitchison

Firefighters working for Orange Township in Ohio operate in work groups. Some work groups include both full-time and part-time firefighters. In October 2016, Marcus Musser began working as a part-time firefighter at Station 361 in what was referred to as “I-Unit.” In September 2019, Musser asked one of his captains whether he could transfer to a different unit in order to gain additional experience. When the captain suspected that Musser might have other reasons for requesting the transfer, Chief Matt Noble launched an investigation.

Noble contacted Captain John Hodges, who told Noble that he had witnessed Musser carrying a trashcan that had a strap attached to it. Hodges attributed this to mimicking scenes from Letterkenny, a television show that was popular with members of I-Unit. Noble told Hodges that “this was hazing, and that it had to stop immediately.”

After more than 20 interviews, the investigation concluded with the termi­nation of three firefighters for engaging in hazing. Local 3816 of the IAFF chal­lenged the terminations in arbitration.

An arbitrator ordered the reinstate­ment of the firefighters with full back pay. The Arbitrator began by explaining the core facts: “It was common for most of the employees working on I-Unit to make various jokes and comments based on a television show called Letterkenny. The show is about a group of people in a small Canadian town. It involves a hockey team. Whenever a team member does anything wrong, the coach tells the player ‘fucking embarrassing.’ This phrase is used frequently during the show. In addition, during hockey practices, the coach often kicks a trashcan across the ice.

“Many of the firefighters began to use the phrase ‘fucking embarrassing’ around the firehouse. Whenever someone made a mistake or forgot to perform a task, the phrase was used toward the offending employee. Musser testified that, a handful of times during each shift, several firefighters referred to some­thing he did as ‘fucking embarrassing.’ Sometimes, when Musser realized that he did something wrong, he said ‘I know, fucking embarrassing.’

“Musser, on his own, decided to attach a strap to the trashcan so that he could carry it around. He began to car­ry it around the firehouse one evening. Musser stated that a lieutenant told him to make sure that he had it with him at all times. At the end of the shift, Musser hung the trashcan up in the locker area. When Captain Hodges saw the trashcan hanging there, he removed it.

“After he had been working on I-Unit for about a year, Musser told other members of the unit that his brother called him ‘cousin fucker.’ Musser explained that, after he and his wife began dating, his mother married his wife’s uncle. Thus, Musser and his wife are cousins by marriage, but not blood related. After Musser related the story, several coworkers began to refer to him as ‘cousin fucker.’ The term was used at various times, including during roll call. Belville and Martin were among the coworkers who regularly referred to Musser as ‘cousin fucker.’ Musser never told anyone that he objected to the use of the term.”

“Musser sometimes jokingly referred to Belville or Martin as ‘Dad.’ This reference was apparently due to the age difference between them, and because they frequently gave orders to Musser. Firefighter Murphy also referred to Martin and Belville as ‘Dad,’ and would then be slapped in the groin. A practice developed whereby Belville and Martin would attempt to hit Musser in the groin whenever he called them ‘Dad.’ Musser began to place his hands in front of his groin to protect himself immediately after he called either of them ‘Dad.’ However, he continued to refer to them as ‘Dad.’

“The evidence supports the conclu­sion that members of I-Unit engaged in various activities that would be consider vulgar or offensive in most workplaces, However, there is clear evidence that these types of activities are not unusual for firefighters who work together on 24-hour shifts. Behaviors occur that would not be tolerated in almost any other workplace. Numerous witnesses testified that the work culture in a fire­house is unique, and that the behavior of the grievants was consistent with normal firehouse behavior.

“The Arbitrator concluded that the conduct of the members of I -Unit was within the range of activities that are generally considered acceptable inter­action among firefighters. The fact that these activities were occurring does not necessarily mean that everyone working on the unit must willingly accept them. Clearly, no one should be forced to par­ticipate in workplace activities that are clearly unrelated to the job. If any mem­ber of I-Unit made his or her objections known, other crew members would be obligated to exclude the complaining crewmember from the activities. How­ever, a crew member who is offended or uncomfortable with any of the workplace rituals, has a clear responsibility to make his or her concerns known to coworkers.

“Musser did not clearly communi­cate that he objected to the conduct that led to the discharge of the grievants. He did not notify members of I-Unit that he was no longer willing to tolerate their behavior. Further, Musser did not make any complaint either within or outside of the chain of command.

“The Arbitrator concluded that the Township failed to establish that any of the grievants engaged in conduct that they knew or should have known was unwelcome. Further, neither Martin nor Hodges neglected their supervisory duties by failing to intervene in the ac­tivities occurring in I-Unit.”

IAFF, Local 3816 and Orange Town­ship, FMCS Case No. 200103-02715 (Kohler, 2021).

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