TAMPA —A firefighter who exposed a culture of gender bias at Tampa Fire Rescue during a two-year legal battle to keep her job found it threatened again after becoming embroiled in nearly two dozen new human resources complaints.
Since she was reinstated as a firefighter paramedic in April, Tanja Vidovic, 36, has filed at least 13 complaints with the city of Tampa’s human resources department, according to records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. At the same time, her new station captain and three coworkers have filed complaints of their own, accusing Vidovic of lying and creating a hostile work environment.
Investigations into the complaints were wrapped up within the last week or so, city spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said Friday, and all were closed with “no findings on either side,” Bauman said.
Still, written accounts and recorded interviews with city firefighters show Vidovic’s court-ordered return to Tampa Fire Rescue has reignited the divisive working environment detailed during trial of her federal discrimination and retaliation complaint two years ago.
In a summary report of the city’s latest findings, employee relations manager Kelly Austin wrote that only two of the 13 complaints submitted by Vidovic were “substantiated.” Both were reports of “inappropriate language” she heard in the workplace – one from a driver-engineer who used an ethnic slur when referring to himself and one from a driver-engineer who used an expletive when someone threw away his meal while cleaning a refrigerator.
Among the complaints by Vidovic that were found to be unsubstantiated:
• That she received a number of "warning calls" before returning to work from unnamed people who told her city officials would try to fire her or someone would "mess with her gear.” Vidovic said she couldn’t remember who made the calls and delayed turning over phone records, eventually providing records from the wrong year.
• That there was a retaliatory move involving her protective mask. The problem was later found to be the age of the equipment.
• That someone punctured a garbage bag holding her bed linens with a wooden stick topped by a mannequin head. She contacted Tampa Police about the incident, saying she felt threatened. The station chief said he told Vidovic the head was a Halloween prop someone had placed in a closet where her bag was kept.
Vidovic’s “unsubstantiated” complaints lacked the detail needed to investigate them and were routinely at odds with the accounts of other witnesses, employee relations manager Austin wrote in her report.
But Vidovic described her life since returning to the firehouse as the same barrage of harassment and intimidation she recounted during four weeks of testimony when her federal suit went to trial in December 2016.
She was fired the day after she filed the suit. A jury agreed that the city discriminated against her because she was pregnant and retaliated against her when she complained. A judge ordered the city to reinstate Vidovic as a firefighter-paramedic and the city paid her $245,000 in damages.
A complaint she filed with the firefighters’ union in August said she was stripped of her paramedic certifications after being rehired in early April. That grievance, like many others, never made its way to the city’s human resources department, she said.
"I don't know what to do," Vidovic said in an interview with the Times. "I'll come in to work and everything will be fine and quiet but there's this underlying crazy cattiness where I've just gotten used to them not letting me drive or treating me rudely for no apparent reason. I'd love to just do my job and not feel threatened."
Vidovic’s coworkers say they feel threatened by her, too, according to the human resources investigation.
In one statement, firefighter Jason Leary said Vidovic tried to coerce him into swapping firehouses to help her attain a more senior status.
“Her proposal made me very uncomfortable as I viewed it to as a request for me to lie and commit a fraudulent act,” Leary said.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.