Saying C-word means fire inspector must be fired, NJ court rules
TRENTON — A state fire inspector who used a vulgar gender slur against his female supervisor has to be fired because his behavior poses "too much of a risk," state appellate judges ruled Wednesday.
William R. Hendrickson, who worked with the state Bureau of Fire Code Enforcement, was fired back in 2015 by the Department of Community Affairs after he was heard by several co-workers calling his supervisor a "f***ing c**t" after she changed his work schedule during a shift in the parking lot of a sports stadium.
The state said Hendrickson violated the state Law Against Discrimination and hurt the morale of coworkers and his supervisor.
The termination was appealed to an administrative law judge. Hendrickson denied using that word, but did say that he recalled that he hoped she would get "a disease" — a defense that left the family of the woman aghast when they first read about it Wednesday, saying she had died of cancer in May at the age of 63.
That administrative law judge didn't believe Hendrickson but, despite finding his behavior egregious, changed the termination to a six-month suspension, saying that the concept of progressive discipline — in which employees are subjected to increasing degrees of punishment before they're fired — should apply to this case.
The state appealed that decision, arguing that if an employee with less than two years on the job can't behave appropriately, he lacks the judgment and self-control necessary for the job.
The three-judge appellate panel on Wednesday agreed with the state, reversing the six-month suspension in favor of the original termination.
The decision says progressive discipline doesn't apply in this case because Hendrickson's job "bears similarity to the role played by law enforcement officials."
Even though Hendrickson had a perfect disciplinary record before this incident, courts in the past have approved terminating otherwise exemplar employees when what they've done amounts to "severe misconduct" and their job involves public safety.
"In this case, in addition to the fact Hendrickson's position involves public safety and requires interaction with the public, his lack of truthfulness during the hearing, and lack of remorse for his loss of control, make him a poor choice for incremental discipline," the 17-page decision says.
"This incident, at the very beginning of Hendrickson's career, augured ill for his future."
The daughter of the supervisor — who asked New Jersey 101.5 not to identify her mother or the family because of the embarrassing nature of the case — said she was pleased Hendrickson lost his job.
"We forgive the gentleman for his comments but … people should think twice about calling people that ungodly word for women."
Before working for the state, her mother had been a pioneering woman firefighter in her community's fire company.
"She was a tremendous mother, a tremendous fire inspector, a tremendous firefighter and EMT and she served her community and the state with pride until August of last year," her daughter said.
The daughter said the family had known about the slur, but first learned of Hendrickson's "disease" comment after reading about the appellate decision Wednesday.
"The comment was unwarranted, but we also feel he really shouldn’t have said that about the disease. It just goes to show, you never know what is going to happen."
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