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Sex Bias Furor At Forest Service

Thousands of female Forest Service employees in California are asking a federal judge to hold U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in contempt of court for failing to reduce workplace hostilities.

The Forest Service, a division of the USDA, has been under a court-approved settlement since January 2002, when officials agreed to establish a three-year program to train employees and enforce women's rights in the workplace.

"By the incidents that have been occurring in the last year and a half of egregious sexual harassment, workplace violence and reprisals, it's clear the agency has failed to prevent and eliminate sexual harassment," Lesa Donnelly, a former Forest Service employee and lead plaintiff in the case, said Wednesday.

Donnelly said the Forest Service is not investigating complaints about sexual harassment. In some cases, the service is retaliating against women who make the complaints by denying them training and advancement opportunities, she said.

A hearing on the contempt order, which was filed earlier this month by the current and former employees, is for scheduled July 18 in U.S. District Court in Oakland.

Matt Mathes, a Forest Service spokesman, said the agency is taking steps to improve working conditions.

"We realize that we need to do better," Mathes said Friday.

The Forest Service is developing a procedure to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and plans to implement sensitivity training programs, the agency said.

Although there have been recent complaints of sexual harassment, Mathes said the agency has not fired anyone for such conduct in the last six months.

Of the 5,000 Forest Service workers in California, 37 percent are women. Within the USDA, the Forest Service has the largest number of complaints, and California has the largest within the agency, Donnelly said.

Donnelly and Ginelle O'Connor filed the original lawsuit in 1995, claiming thousands of women in California's 18 national forest divisions suffered a backlash after the agency was ordered to hire more women in the early 1990s.

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