She was a silence breaker on harassment - and says she was fired for it

Thursday , December 07, 2017 - 3:50 PM

Petula Dvorak

(c) 2017, The Washington Post.

Before it was a movement, Anita Massengale said #MeToo.

And what happened after that was despicable.

“I nearly cried when I saw that Time cover,” Massengale said Wednesday after Time magazine named “The Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year. The magazine is honoring the women who came forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault, spurring a national reckoning on abuse in the workplace.

Massengale, 56, could be on that cover. She alleges she was sexually harassed at work by an underling at the District of Columbia fire department four years ago. He’d been hitting on her for months, she said, and when she was alone in her office one day, he grabbed her and forcibly kissed her until she pushed him away.

A nurse with a law degree, Massengale is a formidable person. She knew working as the quality assurance manager for a big-city fire department put her in the thick of machismo central.

And she dealt with the sexism, holding her own among the tough guys for nearly five years. But this one jerk wouldn’t let up. And the day he forced himself on her shook her up, she said. Like many women, she’d been assaulted before, and the move in the office felt frighteningly familiar.

“I was taking my daughter to school the next day - she was 14 at the time - and she saw I was visibly shaken,” Massengale said. “I told her what happened.”

“That’s sexual harassment,” her daughter told her. “Mom, you have to report it.”

Massengale thought about it on the drive to her office.

“I thought: ‘He’s married. I don’t want to hurt his family,‘ “ she said. “But my daughter. I knew I was teaching her to be a woman. And I knew I had to report it.”

So she did. Internal affairs moved the man and promised her he would never work near her again. She thought that was the end of it.

But then, she alleges, more harassment followed. Every time Massengale passed then-Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, a middle-school classmate of her harasser, he made a snide comment, she testified later in a discrimination complaint.

“We’d be passing each other in the hallway and he would press his back against the wall and say, ‘Oh no, here she comes,‘ “ she said.

And when they were in meetings together, she said, Ellerbe made a big show of making sure he was on the other side of the room from Massengale, commenting on the space he had to keep between them.

I reached Ellerbe by phone, and he refused to comment. “Nope,” he said again and again.

Massengale filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about the hostile work environment she felt the chief was creating. The legal proceedings dragged on, and the harassment increased, she said, until she was fired on May 2, 2014.

Two months later, Ellerbe left the department after a troubled and contentious tenure. The current department leadership said no one involved in the case can comment on it.

“The allegations and legal proceedings related to this complaint, which arose in 2013, remains in litigation,” Doug Buchanan, chief communications officer for the department, said in an email. “For this reason, the D.C. Fire and EMS Department is unable to comment on this particular case at this time. As a general matter, the D.C. Fire and EMS Department does not tolerate any form of harassment in the workplace and always strives to provide a safe and professional workplace for our 2,000-member workforce.”

Earlier this year, an administrative law judge with the D.C. Office of Human Rights ruled on Massengale’s EEOC complaint in her favor, finding it likely that “retaliatory animus” led to her being fired.

According to the legal order, signed by office director Monica Palacio, Massengale must be given her old job back, with her seniority and back pay restored to the day she was fired.

The law firm representing Massengale trumpeted the win on its website.

But the department appealed the decision, and the case now dwells in the D.C. Superior Court queue. And while city taxpayers foot the legal bill for the department, Massengale, a single mom who is also caring for an elderly parent, is out thousands of dollars in legal fees.

“I feel battered,” she said. “I’m supposed to be winning and winning. I don’t feel like I’m winning.”

She stepped forward, she did the right thing, and people believed her. But it has cost her. That’s why so many women don’t come forward, why a hashtag and magazine cover aren’t enough - and why breaking the silence is only the first step.

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