Editor’s Note (10/16/2019): This article was edited to add comments from a Cole County attorney and the current chief of Cole County EMS.
Three former Cole County EMS employees filed lawsuits against the county government alleging employment discrimination by a former head of the department.
Michael Burks, Kim Kline and Aaron Steenbergen each sued the county government on Monday in Cole County Circuit Court. All three were fired on April 20, 2018, by the then-head of the department, Jerry Johnston.
Burks, Kline and Steenbergen had worked for Cole County for nine, 17 and “over twenty-two” years before their terminations, according to the lawsuits.
All three allege Johnston discriminated against them because of their age, and all three said “Johnston showed disdain for the older and more experienced employees,” in each lawsuit petition.
“On purpose, these employees were pushed out of their jobs with 22, 18 and almost 10 years of experience there at Cole County based on their age,” said Julianne Germinder, the attorney representing all three. “Not based on any legitimate reason or any problem with their work”
All three also say Johnston, at least once, interfered with training on a new program.
‘When Cole County hired trainers to train the Cole County EMS on a new computer software, Mr. Johnston got everyone so drunk the night before that the trainers weren’t actually able to train the staff the next day,” all three former employees allege in the lawsuits.
Kline, the only woman of the three, also alleged Johnston made sexual comments to her and other female employees, including statements about their breasts.
“On several occasions, Mr. Johnston attempted to kiss female employees without consent,” Kline alleges in her lawsuit petition.
“He would try to kiss women at work, he would try to touch them. He would be inviting women over to his house, to his hot tub, to his parties,” Germinder said.
Although the allegations center around Johnston, Germinder said she wants to see change at the county government.
“We want Cole County to be different. We want them to be an employer that treats employees fairly, and doesn’t discriminate against them based on age or sexist attitudes or those sort of things,” she said.
Cole County officials pushed back Wednesday against Germinder’s claims.
“(Germinder) alleges that the current environment at EMS is the same as the plaintiffs have alleged it was under Jerry, back in April 2018. That can’t be farther from the truth,” Cole County Attorney Jill Lahue said in an email.
Johnston resigned as EMS chief in June 2018 but continued to work as a paramedic under the new chief, Matthew Lindewirth, who started in July 2018. Lindewirth moved from South Carolina for the job in Cole County, and was not with the department during Johnston’s administration.
“The environment that is alleged to have existed in April 2018, I can tell you does not exist now or since July 2018, when I first arrived as Chief of EMS,” Lindewirth told ABC 17 News in an email. “We operate within the confines of the law. Everyone is treated fairly based on their own merit.”
Lahue added that Germinder’s statements could negatively impact the department in the future.
“This is just biased and promotional commentary from the plaintiffs and is not based on any facts or evidence. Not only does this commentary defame Cole County EMS, but it also could affect Matt (Lindewirth)’s ability to hire people if individuals and the media are promoting this negative and inaccurate image. We have a real problem with this,” Lahue said.
Lahue and Lindewirth did not directly comment on the Johnston allegations outlined in the lawsuits.
Lahue said Johnston left his paramedic position in September 2018 for a job out of state. ABC 17 News called a number that used to belong to Johnston, but did not immediately receive a response.
You can read each petition in full below.