Ex-Cecil paramedic urges protection for volunteers

January 16, 1994|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Staff Writer

A former Cecil County paramedic who was suspended after bringing sexual harassment charges against a male co-worker in 1990 says legislation is needed to protect volunteer workers.

Paula Haavistola made the comments after a federal jury determined last week that volunteer rescue workers are not employees of the volunteer fire companies and that the fire companies are private entities not governed by the state.

That meant that Mrs. Haavistola, because she was a volunteer, not an employee, was not entitled to damages for violation of her civil rights.

Mrs. Haavistola had contended that her civil rights were violated when she was suspended by the Community Fire Company of Rising Sun, where she volunteered, after she had made the sexual assault allegations against her co-worker, an ambulance driver.

Mrs. Haavistola and the man were suspended, but he was reinstated after being acquitted of criminal charges in Cecil Circuit Court.

Mrs. Haavistola, who now lives in Pittsburgh, said she will not appeal the jury's decision last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

People in Maryland need to be aware of the impact of the jury's decision, she said.

Volunteer fire companies receive tax money from the state for worker's compensation, life insurance, disability and scholarship funds for dependents of those hurt on the job, she said.

But the jury's decision allows the companies to discriminate and not be bound by civil rights laws, she said.

Rising Sun Mayor Sallie B. Teague said that Mrs. Haavistola probably had a valid point but that she thinks the woman was misguided.

"I never thought the volunteer fire company was acting for the state, even if it does receive a certain amount of taxpayers' dollars," Mrs. Teague said.

The unpaid volunteers govern themselves, she said, and operate with donations, depending on the generosity of the community.

"We're just delighted with the favorable decision," Mrs. Teague said.

Mrs. Haavistola isn't. The 49-year-old woman said her case has mostly been misunderstood.

"I've been called greedy for filing the lawsuit, but I never even knew how much the attorneys were suing for [$2.7 million]," she said.

Mrs. Haavistola said that she has read many letters to editors with opinions on how she should have handled the matter but that no one realized her reactions were influenced by her own experience of having been abused sexually and physically as a child.

"I was victimized between the ages of 2 and 14 and removed from my home and placed in foster care," she said. "Now, 40 years later, I was re-victimized as an adult."

Mrs. Haavistola said it is unfair that she cannot make use of her medical training in Maryland because the suspension she received for reporting the incident is a permanent part of her record.

"The real issue came out at the criminal trial, when I was referred to as an 'interloper,' " she said. "I was not from Rising Sun [originally], so the fire company really rallied behind [the man]."

Mrs. Teague said she understood the "outsider" mentality.

"I'm an outsider -- I've been in the county since 1970 and moved to Rising Sun in 1980 -- and I still hear about it," she said.

Mrs. Teague said such comments usually are made in a joking manner.

Mrs. Haavistola said she does not think the residents of Rising Sun ever did "get the message of why the suit was filed."

Mrs. Haavistola said she is too tired to keep fighting. She said it was her choice not to appeal last week's decision.

"I'm disappointed, because it shows that nothing really has changed from the '50s to the '90s," she said.

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