An administrative judge awarded $115,000 in back pay to a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter who sued the agency after he was “blackballed” for speaking out publicly about loose coronavirus safety regulations at the height of the pandemic.
“At first I couldn’t believe it,” the firefighter, Pedro Rios, said, speaking publicly for the first time since the ruling. “It was an overwhelming flow of emotions.”
The decision, issued in late February by Judge Michael S. Shachat with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which oversees federal employee disputes, stemmed from two federal complaints filed last year by Rios, a firefighter with more than 13 years’ experience.
“All agency employees have a right to raise legitimate workplace concerns without fear of reprisal, as the agency itself has readily admitted,” Shachat wrote in his ruling. “I find that there is strong evidence of a retaliatory motive on the agency’s part.”
In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the Forest Service 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 rehire rights, the hiring process federal firefighters undergo every fire season, after a social media post criticized his managers' lax handling of Covid safety guidelines.
In a message posted to a Facebook community page in July 2020, Rios warned residents of a small Northern California county that his fire crew would be returning home to Klamath National Forest without first having quarantined after it spent a week in Southern California, which was considered a Covid-19 hot spot at the time.
He went on to post a screenshot showing the names of Klamath National Forest officers whom community members could contact with questions or concerns.
At the center of Rios’ fear were his son’s severe asthma and worry over what could happen if the boy contracted Covid, he said.
Within a few hours of the post’s publication, Rios was questioned by his team leader, who called his behavior “unprofessional” and warned him that he had “rocked the boat.”
His application for the coming fire season was later rejected even though he had received positive performance reviews.
In his ruling, Shachat said Rios’ social media post “broke no rules and raised legitimate concerns through the only forum he felt he had available to him to do so.”
Rios' lawyer, Tom Dimitre, said the ruling could open the door for future whistleblowers to come forward without fear of losing their jobs.
"The decision itself clearly indicates that the Forest Service does retaliate against employees who whistleblow, and I would hope that other employees would use it as motivation to hold the Forest Service accountable," he said.
"Whether the Forest Service actually will change their practices based on this decision, I’m pretty doubtful about 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 ground.
“If everyone who complained got fired, they would have no one left,” he said of the Forest Service, which has been plagued in recent years by dwindling staffing as firefighters seek more lucrative jobs with state and municipal agencies. “It always seemed like management didn’t listen to what firefighters were trying to tell them.”