Current, former Eagle County employees allege gender-based discrimination |

Current, former Eagle County employees allege gender-based discrimination

One of two women who have resigned from Eagle County Animal Services has now filed a complaint of discrimination with a federal agency

Editor’s Note: This story contains brief descriptions of sexual harassment that may be upsetting for some readers.

Since 2017, two women have resigned from Eagle County’s animal services department due to what they said is a culture of gender-based discrimination and mismanagement that has been consistently overlooked by human resources.

Now, one of the women, Rebecca West, has filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, which is working with a federal agency to investigate the allegations. West said she hopes the investigation will focus on county leadership’s failure to address the situation appropriately rather than on the individual employees involved.

“This is a problem,” West said in a January interview. “I don’t know who (leadership) is protecting here, but it’s not the victims.”

West’s decision to become an animal control officer was borne out of a genuine love for animals. She said she feels more at ease around animals, particularly dogs, and they seem to feel more at ease around her. Her little rescue dog, Hugh, curls up at her feet and begins to snooze as she speaks.

Support Local Journalism

It was precisely this passion for animal welfare, she said, that pushed her to go public with her concerns.

“This is an industry that I care so much about and want it to be successful and want people to get involved in it and what it does to help the community,” West said. “In order to do that, the people doing that work have to be in the right place to be able to serve their community and the animals.”

Eagle County Animal Services is broken down into two divisions, led by two co-managers. West worked on the field services or code enforcement side, run by Field Services Manager Nathan Lehnert, from March 2020 through October 2021, she said.

The Eagle County Animal Shelter, run by Animal Shelter Manager Rhiannon Rowe, makes up the other half of the department. The two sides work closely with one another.

The COVID-19 pandemic initially put more distance between West and her coworkers as the team tried to avoid in-person gatherings. After more than a year working as an “animal control two” officer, West started working with her team in person more. She said she began to notice that she was being treated differently than her male counterparts, some of whom were friends with – or otherwise seemed to be preferred by – Lehnert.

Things worsened in the late spring and summer of last year when West said that a fellow animal control officer, a man, began making sexualized, harassing comments to her in the workplace, sometimes in front of other employees.

From the beginning of May up until his firing last fall, this male coworker made inappropriate and unsolicited comments about her physical appearance and her private life, she said. At one point, he said that she looked like a librarian with her hair up, “like I’m going to get into trouble,” according to an official “complaint of discrimination” recently compiled by the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Now, looking back on all that transpired in the subsequent six months leading up to her resignation, West said she sees this alleged sexual harassment as the most egregious symptom of a larger issue – a culture of gender-based discrimination and mismanagement within the department.

Sexism, favoritism, or both?

A total of four current and former employees across both divisions of Eagle County Animal Services spoke with the Vail Daily about concerns within the department. West was the only one to bring sexual harassment claims against her male coworker. But others — who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal or concerns over future employment opportunities — substantiated those claims. Others also voiced concerns about mismanagement, lack of action by the county’s human resources department and discriminatory treatment from Lehnert.

Now, whether that preferential or discriminatory treatment was based on gender or was rooted in favoritism towards coincidentally male employees depends on who you ask.

“There had been an ongoing issue with some favoritism towards a couple of the officers from our boss,” said a current Animal Services employee. “I say that in the past tense because one of those people has since been fired due to some of the concerns that were raised when we were talking about the favoritism issue. So, I feel like that problem’s been solved, but it was definitely something that was an issue for a little while.”

The male animal control officer was one of two men in the department who did not use the preferred pronouns of an LGBTQ+ field services officer, West said.

“I personally think and feel it was mostly sexism. I don’t really think it was favoritism,” said one former employee. “He was already kind of subtly doing stuff like that even before he became the supervisor.”

“It was always kind of a joke that some of the officers didn’t really have many expectations, but there were more expectations placed on other officers,” said another current employee. There is “less room for error” when it comes to non-male field services employees, the person said, adding that some of this was based in “hearsay.”

“It’s always kind of been like this male-dominated type field,” the employee continued, adding that many animal control officers have backgrounds in law enforcement or code enforcement which can add to the culture of it being “a man’s job.”

First came the exclusion from male-dominated lunch meetings or golf outings, then the disproportionately assigned weekend shifts and the suspicion of pay inequities, then the occasional sexist comments, West said of her experience upon returning to work in person.

What was praised, disciplined, or let slide often had to do with whether you were a part of the boys club, she said, all of which contributed to a “hostile, sexist and discriminatory environment.”

“My personal experience was that my boss and (Eagle County Human Resources) were very good at appearing to be concerned and appearing to be outraged,” West said. “I think it is summed up quite nicely in the quote – ‘what you do speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you have to say’ – and I felt like their actions did not match up to how they spoke about things.”

At the start of August 2021, a coworker filed a sexual harassment complaint with the human resources department on West’s behalf upon hearing about interactions with her fellow animal control officer. West was contacted by a human resources representative but said she did not wish to file a formal complaint at the time.

A few weeks later, on Aug. 24, West brought up concerns of gender-based discrimination and mistreatment within the department to Lehnert during her mid-year review. She said he reacted by discrediting the claims and telling her they were personally offensive.

Lehnert declined to comment on the allegations brought against the county and his department.

A facility located on Fairgrounds Road in Eagle houses both sides of Eagle County Animal Services – the field services team and the animal shelter.
Kelli Duncan/Vail Daily

On Aug. 29, another employee brought up concerns of favoritism, pay inequity and a “Good Old Boys Club” environment within the department in an email sent to Lehnert, according to copies of the emails obtained by the Vail Daily.

“(West) has been talking to me about the same issues she’s gone to you about, and I agree with everything she’s bringing up,” the email reads. “The field services department feels like a ‘Good Old Boys Club’ where she and I have to work harder than everyone else just to prove that we deserve to be here in the first place. We work here, but we are still outsiders.”

This employee was told that earning an “agent commission” through the Colorado Bureau of Animal Protection would lead to a possible raise, according to the email. After obtaining the commission, the employee was told that a raise wouldn’t be “fair” to other employees.

“I was not aware of the actual scope of the pay discrepancy until recently,” the employee said in the email. “It doesn’t sit right with me that I make significantly less than officers that I have trained, especially with the recent discussions about me providing more training for them due to my high performance. I question what the incentive for achievement is if I will always be trying to catch up in pay and status.”

Lehnert forwarded that email to leadership within the Eagle County Manager’s Office and the human resources department later that week.

“Some concerns were brought to my attention … as we completed mid-year reviews recently, and I believe (human resources) needs to be aware of them,” Lehnert wrote at the start of the email. “I want to make sure you’re involved because I highly value your guidance, but also want to ensure that I am held accountable to resolve any issues appropriately.”

Lehnert proceeded to list out his employees’ concerns as they had been communicated to him and then suggested ideas to remedy the situation.

“Is there something more I can be doing to advocate for new positions within our department that would allow for the recognition of high performing employees who take on additional responsibility?” he asked, also suggesting bringing such ideas to the county’s committee on equity.

“This issue more than anything else concerns me deeply. It’s vital to me that Eagle County is represented in a way that others only see integrity,” Lehnert said at the end of the email. “I’m taking steps to change the environment in order to prevent any unintended or even perceived unequal treatment, but it’s clear that I haven’t been sensitive enough to even recognize that there was an issue.”

“I’m concerned that without some type of regular external feedback the problem won’t be fully rectified,” he said.

How it was handled

After Lehnert’s email, West said no one replied or followed up with her or – to the best of her knowledge – with the other employee for nearly three weeks.

“There was just complete radio silence and we both had to email to be like, ‘Hi. Hello. Did anyone receive this? Is anyone working on it?’” she recalled.

An email chain obtained by the Vail Daily shows a follow-up email sent by West after 20 days of no response to Lehnert’s message. In the email, sent on Sept. 22, West said “…since this alone has taken (three) weeks, I feel our concerns are being treated as unimportant and not a priority.”

Later that day, the county’s deputy director of human resources apologized for not following up and said she had been “working with (Lehnert) on some action items and many of the suggestions/questions that were provided take time to address and evaluate.”

Complaints of sexual or gender-based harassment or discrimination are handled in accordance with the procedure set forth in the Eagle County Employee Handbook, according to a statement provided to the Vail Daily.

When it comes to complaints of harassment or violations of the equal employment opportunity or Title VI nondiscrimination policy, “the county expects employees to make a complaint as soon as possible, usually within two working days, to enable the county to investigate and correct any behavior that may be in violation of this policy,” according to the handbook.

The county’s protocol states that allegations like these should be reported to the executive director of human resources or the county manager who will “investigate the matter and take corrective action,” according to the handbook. Complaints are kept “as confidential as practicable.”

A county spokesperson provided this general information in a written statement but added that “specific personnel matters are maintained as confidential, and will not be discussed with the media, or any third parties.”

At the end of September, West said Aryn Schlichting, the county’s deputy director of human resources, called two subsequent meetings with West, Lehnert and the other employee who expressed discrimination concerns to discuss next steps.

West and her coworker were informed that the human resources department had looked into the allegations and had determined that the department was paying its employees equitably, West said. The deputy director of human resources suggested the development of programming to promote better team building and communication within the department, according to West’s recollection of the meeting.

“Honestly, the only time I personally experienced them take any sort of action or even ask for a formal written or documented complaint was when I gave my statement,” she said.

In a Sept. 29 staff meeting, the male animal control officer who West said had been harassing her mocked her in front of the group, insinuating she was promiscuous for knowing the location of the Glenwood Springs Planned Parenthood office, she said. She used this more tangible example of the team’s problematic environment to take a stand once again.

Following the staff meeting, West wrote a statement that she read aloud in the second of the two meetings with human resources, which was held on Sept. 30.

After recounting what happened with the male animal control officer, West said she was “very disappointed he feels so emboldened to say these types of comments in the shelter and around other people.”

“…Again, these two things happened at the shelter while we were all sitting at the same table literally having a conversation about professional communication,” she said in the statement. “There was no leadership or policy or protocol in that moment that was enacted to protect me from the feelings of embarrassment that I felt then and that I’m still feeling now.”

“That’s why I’m here today on my day off when I should be leaving for an anniversary trip with my partner,” she continued. “I am sitting here in this conference room having more uncomfortable conversations with the audacity of hope that things might actually change for good.”

After this meeting, West said she was asked to file a more formal complaint by emailing a human resources representative, which she did. The complaint brought allegations of sexual harassment against the male coworker, who has since been dismissed from the department. It also implicated Lehnert on claims related to gender-based discrimination, favoritism and mismanagement.

The county denied Lehnert’s inclusion in the complaint in a statement provided to the Vail Daily.

“While Eagle County will continue to protect the confidentiality of personnel matters, we are authorized to share with you that neither Eagle County Human Resources nor Eagle County Manager’s Office received any complaint or allegation regarding any ‘situation between (West) and Nathan Lehnert,’” a county spokesperson said in the statement. “No such concerns unfolded through any investigation conducted by Eagle County Human Resources or performance management by the Office of the Eagle County Manager.”

While West’s sexual harassment complaints pertained to her other male coworker, she said she made multiple complaints to human resources regarding Lehnert’s handling of the situation and other instances of discrimination in his management of the department.

West said the county spokesperson’s response felt like an effort to discredit her.

“Not only do these answers further protect county leadership from taking accountability, they further victimize whistleblowers and others involved who were negatively impacted,” she said in a written statement provided to the Vail Daily at the end of January 2022. She included the response as evidence in the Colorado Civil Rights Division complaint that the county has sought to “discredit (her) and/or to harm (her) reputation.”

In the official complaint of discrimination compiled on Feb. 17, West also alleged that Lehnert retaliated against her after the full extent of her complaints against her male coworker, and the department as a whole, were brought to his attention.

Lehnert added information about the complaints into her mid-year review document, which she said she felt was unnecessary and should have been unrelated to a document concerning her work performance.

The mid-year review, obtained by the Vail Daily, contained other concerns about West that were directly related to her work performance and “communication style.”

“We discussed communication style. (West) is often concise in a way that makes me think she’s upset, and I thought she should be aware of how it came across,” Lehnert wrote under a question about areas for improvement. “(Her) case numbers were below the new numbers expected. It will be important to be aware that some additional effort in documentation and/or proactive enforcement will be needed.”

When Lehnert learned of West’s sexual harassment complaints against her male coworker, he disclosed information about her complaint to the male coworker, West said.

“On or about October 12, 2021, Lehnert notified me that (the male coworker) wanted to apologize to me and that (the male coworker) was at risk of being discharged because of the ongoing investigation,” West said in the official complaint of discrimination.

“I believe that Lehnert disclosed this information to me in an effort to make me feel guilty for objecting to the ongoing discrimination and/or to dissuade me from further engaging in protected activity.”

While West said Lehnert is not blameless, she added that she believes he has a good heart and would be very responsive to corrective action from human resources as he cares about his team and his community.

“I think everyone had individual responsibility, absolutely, we all chose what we did and how we did it,” West said. “But ultimately, I feel like (human resources) was this overarching body who weren’t doing things they should have to prevent what happened and when it was brought to their knowledge, I feel like they did not uphold their end of the bargain. … They explained to me the protections they would give me forthright, and they did not follow through and did not offer me those protections.”

On the evening of Oct. 28, 2021, West submitted her resignation from her position, detailing her grievances once again and copying the county manager as well as the director and deputy director of the county’s human resources department.

“I am regretful to submit my resignation notice on account of the difficult and disruptive workplace environment. I love the duties of my job and perform them well. I would have chosen to keep working if it had not been for this hostile work environment,” she said in her resignation letter obtained by the Vail Daily. “Aside from the specific grievances with my workplace I have already documented during my time here, I have also felt a lack of proper and timely communication, feedback and behavior from human resources.”

In a response email, the county’s deputy director of human resources said, “I am sorry to hear that you feel as though we did not handle your complaints appropriately. We disagree with your statements and believe that our staff handled the situation in line with our current policies and procedures.”

“Anyone who looks into the hiring, firing, transferring, and resigning of employees from the department of Animal Services (field services, not the shelter side) will see a concrete pattern,” West later said in a written statement. “Unless you are asked to join ‘the good old boys club’ you don’t last long. Especially women, are documented leaving the officer’s team and either moving organizations or to other departments within the organization. This could be chalked up to many different factors but I have spoken to several women who have worked for my manager, the Field Services Manager, who will say it was due to sexism and a hostile work environment.”

A past of alleged discrimination

Before West, another woman who worked in the same role as her, under Lehnert, made similar complaints that eventually led to her “involuntarily resigning” from her position, according to the woman’s resignation letter obtained by the Vail Daily.

“This is a result of a hostile work environment and discriminatory acts that I have been going through for several months,” the former animal control officer said in her resignation letter.

“I feel I have been singled out because of my age, gender, and the fact that another supervisor hired me,” she said in the letter. “I was hindered from doing my job in several ways, separated from coworkers, and I feel I was set up for failure.”

“I was hesitant to speak with human resources due to the nature of the situation and fear of retaliation,” she continued. “When I finally sought out help, it was turned against me. Eventually, it led to an issue where my supervisor found reason to force me out.”

When asked how many formal or informal complaints of “sexual/gender-based harassment and discrimination or mismanagement” have been received regarding the animal services department, a county spokesperson said “one, which Eagle County addressed and resolved internally.”

When notified that this response conflicted with information from other sources, the spokesperson declined to comment further.

The former animal control officer worked with Eagle County Animal Services from 2015 to 2017. When she started in her role, Lehnert was her fellow officer until he was promoted to serve as the team’s manager. Back then, she heard a second-hand account that Lehnert told another female officer that women were not fit to work on the department’s field services team, she said.

At that time, the woman, Lehnert and two other employees – one male and one female – made up the field services side of the department, the woman said. After issues with the team’s former manager led to his departure, Lehnert was named as the new manager and both sides of the department experienced high rates of staff turnover in a short period of time.

Once Lehnert took over as manager, the woman said she began to feel targeted and micromanaged. One of her fellow animal control officers quickly transferred to the shelter side of the department, the other fellow officer left, and Lehnert hired two male officers who he had preexisting relationships with, she said. Suddenly she, too, was left out of male-dominated outings and felt she was not given the support or “officer discretion” necessary to perform her job functions.

She had multiple meetings with human resources to discuss her concerns.

“It was just a really bizarre situation where he just kind of did everything he could to push me out and then, once I wouldn’t leave, he just set me up,” the woman said.

This idea that Lehnert found “an excuse to force (her) out,” as the woman put it, is a sentiment shared by one employee who worked with her at the time.

“I felt like she wasn’t given the ability to make a mistake or have some help and she just didn’t feel like she had a lot of support coming from her supervisor,” the employee said. “… It was just kind of like they were looking for a reason, I think, to get rid of her.”

In 2017, the woman issued a family a warning for violating restrictions placed on its dog, rather than taking the animal. She said she felt it was within the “officer discretion” afforded to her position to do so.

The campus of the Eagle County Animal Shelter and Services, located off of Fairgrounds Road in Eagle, has multiple pens where animals can get outside to run and play.
Kelli Duncan/Vail Daily

Eagle County’s animal control code stipulates that “any animal that has been previously classified as potentially dangerous and is found in violation of the restrictions concerning potentially dangerous animals may be classified as a ‘dangerous animal’…”

It also states that “during the pendency of any hearing and any appeal therefrom on the classification of (an animal) as dangerous, the (animal) shall be impounded at the County Animal Shelter at the owner’s or responsible person’s expense.”

However, each incorporated town has its own municipal codes surrounding animal control matters.

Lehnert told the woman she defied his orders by not calling him before making the decision not to impound the animal, she recalled.

Following this incident, she was suspended and, eventually, told to resign or be fired, she said. She, too, thought about taking legal action against the department.

“It just needs to be known that he’s doing this because I don’t think (human resources) cares and I don’t think they take it seriously,” she said.

Signs of improvement

Since the resignation of West and the firing of her male coworker, leadership in Eagle County’s animal services department, and especially Lehnert, have been trying to do better, a current employee said.

“I feel like (Lehnert’s) been hyper-conscious of how his words and actions are being perceived,” the employee said. “He’s gone out of his way lately to make sure that I’m not feeling disrespected or overlooked or anything.”

The current employee who initially brought forward complaints alongside West was promoted to lead animal control officer and was given more responsibility and sway within the team, along with a pay raise.

That being said, the matter has continued to cause tension, the current employee said. The department feels more split in two than it is designed to be, and people seem to be on edge, the employee said.

In an email sent to the department’s leadership, members of the county manager’s office and human resources on Nov. 2, 2021, shortly after West’s resignation, Lehnert announced that he would be working remotely to give some time for things to cool down.

Lehnert also asked his staff not to be present at the animal shelter “unless absolutely necessary” to ease tensions between the two sides of the department, saying “the environment here is highly uncomfortable” for he and his co-manager, Rowe.

In the email, he said that Rowe and others had expressed their disappointment and frustration with how he had handled his male employee’s harassment of West and the outcome with her resignation.

“It’s clear that I’ve lost the trust of my co-workers,” he said in the email. “Either due to my incompetence or their lack of knowledge of the situation. Most likely it’s some combination of the two.”

Since then, the current employee said Lehnert has been doing what he can to change the environment of his side of the department. Either he or the human resources department went so far as to bring in a professional counselor to speak to the group, although a few staff members were absent from the meeting, the employee said.

The current employee felt that the issues with the department were rectified with the male employee’s firing and that now, the team should put the past behind them.

“There was an incident that was strictly performance-related with (the male employee) that a lot of us in the shelter were like, you know, why is (Lehnert) protecting him? And it was one of the reasons that (he) ended up getting fired and the reasoning, I guess, behind why it took so long was that (human resources) just straight-up didn’t know about some of the things that were happening.”

“From what I can see, all of this came piling on at once instead of them hearing about it as it was happening,” the employee continued. “(West’s) complaints were like the catalyst for everyone else to come forward.”

A facility located on Fairgrounds Road in Eagle houses both sides of Eagle County Animal Services – the field services team and the animal shelter.
Kelli Duncan/Vail Daily

‘Change has to come from the top’

At the end of October, West decided to file a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division regarding her treatment while working for Eagle County Animal Services.

“I don’t want to be seen as retaliatory, or disgruntled…,” she said. “I think it’s always just easiest to discount the victim. But ultimately, change has to come from the top, in my opinion, even if you’re like me and you’re starting at the bottom.”

The state agency conducted an initial interview with West about her case on Jan. 5, 2022, she said. The agency then compiled an official “complaint of discrimination,” signed by West, on Feb. 17 and sent it over to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for “dual filing,” according to a copy of the complaint obtained by the Vail Daily.

Since West’s allegations extend beyond the Colorado Civil Rights Division’s “jurisdictional time limit” of six months and alleges violations of the federal Equal Pay Act, the investigation will be handled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to a letter sent with the complaint.

The complaint was sent to Eagle County’s director of human resources on March 1.

In a written statement issued on March 2, a spokesperson for the county said they have yet to receive the document. Either way, the spokesperson said it does not change the county’s initial response on the situation as all personnel matters are “confidential” and not to be discussed with the media.

“Eagle County handles all employment complaints appropriately, and will defend against any assertions that may be made by Ms. West to the contrary,” he said in the statement.

Upon receipt of the document, respondents are typically allowed 30 days to respond with a “position statement” to provide information and evidence as to their side of the story, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website.

The agency will then give the position statement and non-confidential accompanying evidence to the charging party – in this case, West – “upon request,” according to the website. She will then have the opportunity to file a rebuttal to the county’s position statement within 20 days.

Following the receipt of these documents, an investigation into the evidence presented by both sides will be launched.

Ultimately, the agency will determine “whether reasonable cause exists to believe that discrimination has occurred,” according to a letter attached to the complaint. If reasonable cause exists, the two parties can seek mediation through a civil proceeding, if desired.

“Going forward, I just want a better environment,” one current employee said. “I think (Lehnert) needs to be responsible for the fact that there’s been huge turnover in his department and there’s been women that have been upset.”

“I wish that upper management would be more of a resource or more of an entity that holds him responsible and checks in to make sure everybody’s OK and make sure that the environment is safe, instead of just kind of taking his side and trying to smooth things over,” the employee continued.

“Right now, we need to focus on rebuilding the team because right now, we’re not a team,” the other current employee said in an interview on Jan. 28. “We’re a bunch of people that all have our own issues that are all arguing.”

West said she hopes her decision to come forward won’t “paint a negative light on (animal welfare) industries because they’re so important and are doing such good work.”

“I really want people to still support and adopt from the animal shelter and to still call Animal Services if they have an animal-related issue or complaint,” she said.

West encouraged anyone with stories of sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination to come forward as everyone is deserving of a safe and supportive working environment.

Support Local Journalism