Winston-Salem Fire Sued For Race Discrimination

Five members of an African-American firefighter organization called Omnibus have filed suit against the city of Winston-Salem and its fire chief alleging race discrimination and retaliation. Thomas Penn Jr., Delbert Hairston Jr., Gerrod Hardy, Ricky Brown and Eddie Forest filed suit on February 11, 2021 in US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

The group has been in the news for months accusing the city and the fire department’s top administrators of discrimination and racial indifference to a broad range of workplace complaints. Their complaints include:

  • According to the United States Census, the City’s population is 46% European-American (non-Hispanic/Latino) and 34.8% African-American.
  • WSFD employees are overwhelmingly European-American, with African-Americans typically comprising approximately 15% of the workforce.
  • Moreover, the percentage of African-Americans who hold senior, officer-level positions rarely exceeds 10%.
  • African-Americans are (a) discouraged from applying for positions, (b) more rigorously tested, scrutinized, and criticized during Rookie School, (c) harassed, belittled, and demeaned, at Stations, (d) denied promotional opportunities, and (e) targeted, transferred, and ostracized if they complain about the discriminatory behavior.
  • African-American WSFD employees have complained to WSFD and City administrators, to no avail.
  • Those complaints have been ignored or, worse, the basis for less favorable assignments and treatment.
  • In instances when a complaint has been found to be valid, the offending WSFD employee has been transferred to a new station, not subject to any more meaningful discipline.
  • The systemic protection of employees guilty of harassment and discrimination has created and fostered an environment where federally-protected rights are violated with near impunity.
  • Lacking any redress or other remedy, Plaintiffs now file this suit alleging race discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

The complaint lists a number of specific examples, including European-American firefighters using the N-word, tying and displaying a noose, and making offensive social media posts, without being disciplined. It also alleges that African-American firefighters were unfairly washed out of the academy and otherwise not treated as favorably as their European-American counterparts.

Here is a copy of the complaint.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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