Woman alleges job harassment, retaliation in ND oil patch

Body: 

BISMARCK—A female surveyor who worked in the North Dakota Oil Patch has filed a complaint against her former employer, claiming she was fired in retaliation for reporting discriminatory behavior by a colleague.

The former employer denies her allegations.

Sarah Gulenchyn, 40, said her co-worker regularly used racial slurs in her presence, including slurs about Native Americans.

Gulenchyn, a native of Duluth, Minn., who is temporarily living in Dickinson, N.D., said she is Jewish and also has Lakota Sioux ancestry.

In a complaint filed Nov. 1 with the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights, Gulenchyn said she was subjected to a hostile work environment, harassment, including sexual harassment, and ultimately was fired after she complained about her colleague's abusive behavior.

In her complaint, she said the male colleague, Phil Ireland, exhibited "racist and sexist behaviors" and said he "cannot work with a woman who is not in a sexual relationship with him."

Both Gulenchyn and Ireland held the rank of party chief, a crew chief position, that ordinarily involves one or two subordinates involved in pipeline surveys and inspections. But Gulenchyn was assigned at times to work under Ireland, she said.

"He was just being so aggressive that I actually got scared," Gulenchyn said, adding Ireland would often call American Indians "prairie niggers" and Hispanics "wetbacks" and "swampers."

Gulenchyn took her concerns to supervisors at LW Survey, and one even traveled from Denver to meet her, but she said the ultimate outcome was her dismissal.

"I was just trying to make it work," she said. "I didn't want any more drama."

But an executive for LW Survey denied that Gulenchyn was dismissed because she expressed her concerns, and said she had been hired for a project expected to last 10 weeks, a time frame Gulenchyn was made aware of in an email when she was hired.

"We hired Sarah for 10 weeks because we were short on people," said Judy Turner, human resources director for LW Survey. "I don't know why she can't accept that. It's certainly frustrating for us, as you can imagine."

LW Survey sent Gulenchyn's lawyer documents, including email and text messages, that Turner said supports its assertion that she wasn't dismissed in retaliation. LW Survey has received no other complaints against Ireland, and was not able to substantiate Gulenchyn's complaint, she said.

"We have done nothing wrong," Turner said. "There's two sides to every story. We hired Sarah for 10 weeks."

Gulenchyn appears to have anticipated Turner's response. In her complaint, she said others in the company she told about Ireland's conduct would likely side with the company, their employer.

"As current employees of LW Survey, they are unlikely to substantiate my claims for their own self preservation," Gulenchyn wrote in her complaint. "Due to the austerity of the wilderness work environment, there were no witnesses to these events other than those directly involved, whom, again, will act out of self preservation."

Gulenchyn said she was hired after her predecessor "quit in the middle of the night," and after Gulenchyn was told they had no more work for her, she was replaced in turn by a woman Gulenchyn said was Ireland's girlfriend.

Ireland and his assistant no longer work for LW Survey, and were let go less than a week after Gulenchyn's departure because there was no more work for them, Turner said. It's a common practice in the Oil Patch to lay off field staff when the work subsides, she said.

"That's the nature of our business," Turner added.

Efforts to reach Ireland were unsuccessful.

An official with the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights said LW Survey has not yet filed a response to Gulenchyn's complaint. In a letter to Gulenchyn's lawyer, the company's lawyer said it was "disheartened" by her allegations.

"This business is unusual work, somewhat itinerant and isolated in nature," Ronald Roeser wrote. "In all events, however, the company was not aware of, condoned or promoted the complained of conduct and as such does not have a legal responsibility to Ms. Gulenchyn where the complaint was lodged after the end of her term."

Before filing the complaint, Gulenchyn tried to settle with LW Survey—her lawyer proposed a settlement of $95,000—but the company said she did not have a valid claim, and it had no legal responsibility because she filed the complaint after she left the firm.

Gulenchyn, who has 25 years of experience in surveying, including working on oil projects on Alaska's north slope, began working for LW Survey in March and was fired in June, according to her complaint.

She had worked for the company earlier, in 2003-04. Her earlier experiences were positive, so she was happy to return to the firm.

"I loved that job," which paid her $10,000 per month in wages and per diem as well as vehicle allowances, she said.

The North Dakota Department of Labor and Human rights does not track discrimination complaints by industry, said Kathy Kulesa, human rights director.

"I really can't speculate as to whether or not discrimination complaints by women in the oil patch are 'common,'" Kulesa said in an email.