KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A federal jury this week found that a former Kansas City, Kansas firefighter was targeted because of his race and disability, then faced retaliation. The major verdict is now sparking a new push for change within the Unified Government of Wyandotte County.
Nearly a decade ago, former leaders in Wyandotte County started bringing issues of racial equity within the Kansas City Kansas Fire Department to the forefront. But one ex-firefighter says collectively, nothing got done. Ultimately, he lost a career he loved and now wants to ensure no one else experiences what happened to him.
Being a firefighter with KCKFD was a dream come true for Jyan Harris.
“Public service is something I’ve always liked doing, serving others. Yes, I wish that’s what I was doing actually today,” said Harris.
He’s not doing so, after being fired from the department. Harris says he was hurt on the job twice in 2013 and 2016. He and his attorneys claimed he was made to use paid time off instead of injury leave, violating union policy.
In the years the followed, they say he was subjected to repeated “intimidation, hostile, and offensive” actions because of his race and physical disabilities. And despite repeated attempts to make formal complaints and get problems resolved, they insist nothing was ever done.
“It is very disheartening, especially when it’s a public entity and you see these matters aren’t being addressed. It’s hard,” said Sarah Liesen, partner and attorney with Edelman, Liesen and Myers.
Harris’ attorneys showed in court that instead of addressing the discrimination, the Unified Government accused him of wrongdoing and fired him. Harris was heartbroken. He lost his career, and his pension.
But Wednesday, he won a legal victory with a jury finding he was a victim and awarded more than $2.4 million for lost wages. He hopes the court finding will lead to real, meaningful change at KCKFD and within the Unified Government.
“You still have to stay vigilant and have to keep the faith God will get you through and I think that’s what’s happened,” Harris said.
“Now maybe Wyandotte County can take a look at itself. It’s not a bad place to be or live, but these problems were before Jyan and hopefully they don’t continue after Jyan.”
In a statement the Unified Government said:
“This case started when conflicts in time records submitted by a Fire Department employee raised concerns related to dual employment and overtime compensation and resulted in the termination of one firefighter. The Unified Government and Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department (KCKFD) have already taken action to improve the time management system to prevent future occurrences. With better technology and clearer procedures, we are now able to ensure greater accountability and transparency for taxpayer dollars while complying with federal labor laws.
However, this trial has surfaced other underlying and unacceptable issues within the culture of our fire department that are critical to address.
‘While we support an inclusive fire department, this case has highlighted concerns among some of our personnel that we have more work to do,’ said County Administrator Doug Bach. ‘Our firefighters are on the front lines of our public safety and, in 2021, no one should feel unwelcome or wronged while on the job. Consequently, we are taking swift and decisive action to ensure that no one, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, feels mistreated or disadvantaged within our workplace.’
The Unified Government will be reviewing the concerns raised during the trial to help identify the issues within KCKFD and why these concerns have not been surfaced through existing internal grievance channels. Our administration will meet with any firefighter with concerns about racism or discrimination in the workplace to help us understand the issues and identify potential solutions. We will then develop an action plan to immediately address any of the concerns raised and publicly report on our progress in implementation later this year.
‘We are very concerned about the issues of bias and mistreatment our black firefighters raised in testimony,’ said County Administrator Doug Bach. ‘We have zero tolerance for this alleged behavior and will be working to address it immediately.’
The Unified Government launched its Diversity & Inclusion Program in the Fall of 2020 to raise awareness among staff while implementing best practices. This supports Unified Government goals to attract and retain a more diverse workforce and eliminate any structural barriers to internal advancement. Addressing the culture issues raised in this case will help ensure the Unified Government is able to recruit and support a diverse workforce in the future.”Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas
The KCKFD union, IAFF 64, echoed those sentiments and shared it is hopeful the UG will fully investigate all discrimination claims, and believes positive action from such inquiries would go a long way in encouraging others to come forward.
IAFF 64 also says it is aware of other circumstances similar or related, but cannot comment further on ongoing investigations or pending litigation, but insists those need to be investigated to the fullest extent with appropriate action taken by the employer.