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St. Petersburg firefighters describe hostile workplace under chief

Seven firefighters say Chief Jim Large has fostered a workplace hostile to women and minorities.
 
Fire Chief Jim Large has worked for the St. Petersburg Fire Department for almost 50 years and has served as chief since 2006. Seven firefighters have accused him of fostering a workplace hostile to women and minorities, echoing anonymous comments submitted as part of a city employee survey.
Fire Chief Jim Large has worked for the St. Petersburg Fire Department for almost 50 years and has served as chief since 2006. Seven firefighters have accused him of fostering a workplace hostile to women and minorities, echoing anonymous comments submitted as part of a city employee survey. [ St. Petersburg Fire Rescue ]
Published Aug. 8, 2023|Updated Aug. 8, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — Michelle Methot was 17 weeks pregnant and working at St. Petersburg Fire Rescue’s headquarters downtown on a Friday in 2018 when she started feeling contractions.

After a full labor that lasted three days, she lost the child.

“I held him,” said Methot. “It was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever had to experience.”

She went on family medical leave. But in the days and weeks that followed, Methot said Fire Chief Jim Large asked if she really needed to be off work after he saw a social media post of her eating lunch at a restaurant.

On her first day back, she said Large prepared a disciplinary inquiry for missing continuing education during her leave. Methot said she was made to recount her miscarriage in front of the all-male fire department top brass. The discipline was withdrawn, Methot said. But the humiliation lingers.

“I dread it if I have to see him,” said Methot, 32.

She is among seven active firefighters interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times who described inappropriate interactions and comments from Large and others in the department. The employees represented different ranks and races. They gave varied accounts of their encounters with Large. Some included racist jokes. Each employee said these encounters created a hostile workplace.

All but one have asked to withhold their names because they said they fear retaliation.

A woman who alleged multiple instances of sexual harassment by Large asked Friday that her comments not be printed for that same reason.

All described Large as a man who openly told inappropriate jokes while drinking coffee at the master station as firefighters who were uncomfortable left the room to avoid association. They said he acted inappropriately toward women and did not take seriously minority recruitment and promotion efforts or concerns of Black firefighters.

The allegations come amid broader concerns raised about Large’s leadership that led to Mayor Ken Welch suspending Large with pay on Saturday pending further review. Anonymous comments from a city survey earlier this year accused Large of fostering a workplace hostile to women and minorities and claimed that the longtime chief regularly makes sexist, racist and homophobic remarks.

City spokesperson Erica Riggins said in a statement Monday night that Welch “was unaware of the troubling allegations” from the seven firefighters that the Times shared with the city.

“The city is continuing its assessment and evaluation of all circumstances while weighing the facts and information received so far,” she said. “Once our review is completed, we will share the next steps in the process.”

On behalf of Large, attorney Jay Hebert sent a four-page response denying these allegations Tuesday afternoon. Hebert said Large believes the allegations are “politically motivated” and pointed out that the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association named Large Fire Chief of the Year for the entire state in 2022.

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Two City Council members called for Large’s removal last week. City Council member Richie Floyd called for new leadership last Wednesday. His online statement referenced a 2014 committee report from then-Mayor Rick Kriseman’s transition team that called for Large’s replacement, in part for not having enough minorities in senior ranks. Kriseman said Monday that that committee’s job was to provide information, not make recommendations. And he said he did not recall any complaints about Large’s behavior.

On Thursday, council chairperson Brandi Gabbard said in a statement that she was met with “disrespect, bullying, and attempts at intimidation” by Large when she questioned his direction in public and behind closed doors.

“I could only assume that if he would engage with an elected member of our City Council in that manner, his subordinates were being met with the same or worse,” Gabbard said in the statement.

Hebert said Large had one interaction at an August 2019 council meeting with Gabbard after she was being contentious with a fire department employee and Large “felt it necessary to step in and speak.” Large said he has asked to meet with Gabbard several times and she has refused.

No disciplinary record

Large, 68, was named fire chief in 2006, and February would mark 50 years with the department. A Times review of his 315-page personnel record shows good to superior marks on his evaluations. He has no disciplinary or investigative files on record.

Methot said she is not surprised. The work environment, she said, is already difficult for women. That’s why she didn’t consider filing a complaint with the city’s human resources department.

“Most women won’t go to (human resources) over stuff like that,” she said. “No matter how people feel about a man, I feel that they will still doubt a woman or doubt a minority.”

Methot said her first inappropriate interaction with Large happened before she even started working for the department. She said her colleagues told her that Large showed online photos of her around the station.

“Even before I started making a name for myself, I heard he started showing pictures of me,” Methot said. “It’s like he’s showing off the women before they’re hired.”

Hebert said Large has no recollection of showing that photo. However, “Chief Large has shown photos in the past of individual applicants in order to receive input as far as hiring recommendations.”

The St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters Local 747 confirmed that physical exams are now held at the union hall due to members’ requests because Large would walk into women’s physicals at fire headquarters. The tests include running in a sports bra for a stress test.

Large said he would go into the gym where the physicals are held to “welcome and monitor the third party who is conducting the physical, as well as the employees, as a regular part of his course of conduct within his position.”

“Like it was my fault”

Methot got a doctor’s note to be off work for six weeks due to hemorrhaging after the miscarriage. A month later, she posted a photo online eating lunch out with her boyfriend. The next day, she said she received a call from her district chief saying he had orders to ask if she “really needed to be off” work. Methot then blocked all supervisors from the fire department on social media.

Large said he received two photos from an anonymous source of Methot downtown and at the beach. He said the union contract prohibits employees from engaging in any “recreational or personal work activities” and that he never received a request for Methot to recuperate at another location.

Methot told the Times she was staying with her boyfriend’s family members, who live on the beach. She said she understood the policy as barring employees from treating medical leave as vacation and that she was still taking care of her two children.

Methot said that on the first day she returned to work, Large briefly gave his condolences before saying that the “real reason” he came to see her was to ask why she blocked him on Instagram.

Then, Methot said Large pressured her captain to write her up for missing continuing education while she was on leave, even though her captain, who returned to work from paternity leave, also missed the same exam. He was not written up, she said. Large said Methot’s captain initiated the disciplinary action and that he met with her to discuss it. He provided a photo of the disciplinary form that shows her captain issued the discipline.

She took up the matter with the union, and in a hearing surrounded by the all-male top brass, she sobbed while describing her miscarriage and why she had to be off work to recover.

Then, she said Large asked if Methot knew she was going to miscarry and if she could’ve completed her education ahead of time, which Large “unequivocally denies.”

“It made me feel like it was my fault that I didn’t properly prepare to keep up with my medical training like I should’ve,” Methot said. “Like I should’ve prepared for all this.”

Methot said Large later told her he had to discipline her because others perceive her as one of his favorites and he needed to make an example out of her. A week later, she said her write-up was dropped by Large under pressure. Large said he determined that Methot should not have been written up by her captain.

Methot said that the ordeal, and other uncomfortable experiences she had with Large, have kept her from pursuing opportunities to advance her career. She said she has rarely spoken to Large since.

“I don’t think I want to work in the upper ranks while he’s in leadership,” Methot said.

“A monolithic view”

Four Black employees interviewed by the Times echoed the survey comments accusing Large of fostering a culture hostile to firefighters of color. They said some white colleagues and supervisors were emboldened to taunt them and make derogatory remarks about Black people and neighborhoods while out on service calls.

Survey responses highlighted a lack of minorities in upper ranks. Out of 78 officers who have supervisor duties in the fire department, five are Black. The highest-ranked is Division Chief Fire Administrator Keith Watts, who was hired from Orange County.

A firefighter who is Black said he first experienced racism after joining the department right out of the fire academy. He said supervisors complained about him and his colleagues wearing sagging pants, untucked shirts and backward ball caps.

He was greeted by a supervisor saying he would “slap the s--t out of me,” the firefighter said. He said the officer told him that he didn’t know why the department hired him.

Then, he said he overheard a supervisor describe a program to recruit more minorities into the fire department as “bulls--t” because it resulted in hiring more Black people. He said he also heard a supervisor joke that he is a Black boy who wants to be a white boy that dates “our” white women.

He said it got worse when he started going out on service calls. He would overhear his colleagues make racist remarks, one calling a Black man with amputated feet an obscenity. When the firefighter would object, some wouldn’t want to work with him.

He said he walked in one day to find trash on his bed. A white colleague claimed he put it there and dared him to make a complaint.

A Black female firefighter told the Times that she felt her colleagues and supervisors were biased against women and people of color. She said in her first year, she would work on days off to get better. She said she checked with supervisors to make sure she was doing OK, which she said they confirmed, but would receive low marks on evaluations.

She said she was often told she wasn’t tall enough or didn’t weigh enough, and that many men in the department made comments that women should not be firefighters. She said she felt she was often singled out and disciplined while others were protected. Whenever she complained, she said she was told she could just transfer stations.

Less than a year ago, another firefighter who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation said a colleague called him over to repeat a joke that included the N-word. He was the only Black firefighter at the station that day.

The firefighter said he asked for a meeting with Large, who he said told him that back in the 1970s as a lieutenant, colleagues would play basketball and call him the N-word. The firefighter said he recalled that Large treated the use of the slur as no big deal.

Large denied racism was accepted and said he has not previously been made aware of the allegations. He said he did recall referencing playing a basketball game in which the N-word was used, but he said he used the anecdote to underscore that its use was unacceptable.

Another Black firefighter submitted a comment to the employee survey about Large having “no regard for fairness or equity in the treatment of individuals who are Black.”

“This is often worse for females of that group. Diversity is demonized as reverse discrimination of white males and something that lowers standards to give others a job. This is not simply (banter), it is the reality of statements made by our Fire Chief,” he wrote in the comment.

The firefighter told the Times that Large has a monolithic view of how the organization should be run, and that it’s disconcerting to the culture for everyone, even white males. He called the department a bad place to be overall, particularly for Black employees.

An anonymous email

The survey comments that arrived in city officials’ inboxes last month were sent anonymously by a white supervisor in the fire department who didn’t want the Times to publish his name because he said he feared retaliation.

He told the Times he submitted this comment in the survey: “Chief Large will sit at master fire station drinking coffee and tell sexist jokes. He has also made racist comments about specific crews liking fried chicken (the crew had 4 black people out of 5). He also made a comment about a lesbian Fire Chief and her wife, that he didn’t understand it and asked what do they call each other wife and wife or wife and husband.”

The supervisor said at a dinner, talk turned to a Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen franchise getting built next to Fire Station 7. He said Large said that at least one shift crew for that station will be going there, referring to a shift with a majority of Black firefighters.

Large said the comment was made in regard to available restaurants around the area, including Dunkin’ and McDonald’s.

The supervisor also recalled Large making comments while at the master station about considering whether women are pregnant before he hires them, and that he’s against walking in the St. Pete Pride parade with the city administration. Large denied both these allegations.

Large, the supervisor said, needs to leave because he’s destroying the morale of the department.