Des Moines fire captain fired for Facebook post about subordinate’s interest in ‘gay porn’

A captain with the Des Moines Fire Department was terminated from his job this summer after posting Facebook comments suggesting a co-worker had an interest in gay pornography.

State records indicate David Bernal last worked for the city on June 16, 2023, when he was fired. He had worked for the Fire Department for more than 30 years. The records indicate that in 2021, while serving as a captain, Bernal was demoted from that position to the position of fire engineer due to a series of actions the city found to be in violation of the policies dealing with ethics, violence prevention and business conduct.

Bernal’s actions included a comment about sheets being used for a “meeting” of some kind; a punching bag he brought to work that had faces of a white person and a Black person; and Bernal going unannounced to the home of an off-duty worker to discuss the comment about sheets being in a meeting. State records do not clarify the references to sheets.

At the time, Bernal was given a “last chance warning” as part of his discipline. The warning stated in part that “it is important for you to understand that any further violation of the City of Des Moines workplace policies, including of any type of retaliation towards any members of the fire department, or the City of Des Moines, will subject you to immediate termination.”

Bernal subsequently regained his position as captain and was working in that capacity on June 2, 2023, when he read a Facebook post of a medic who worked at the same fire station. The post included photos of the medic, who had traded shifts with another medic, on a fishing expedition with a group of children.

Bernal allegedly posted a response to the medic’s Facebook pictures with the comment, “Next time pick someone less fascinated with gay porn to trade with.”

The city’s human resources department investigated the matter and a hearing was held with Bernal and his legal counsel and union representative. Citing the previous “last chance warning,” the city terminated Bernal’s employment.

At his subsequent hearing seeking unemployment benefits, Bernal testified that his Facebook comment represented a continuation of the banter that he and his “brothers” at the fire station had engaged in the previous day while out playing disc golf – a claim that Administrative Law Judge Blair Bennett found to be credible.

Bernal also testified his post was not meant to be disparaging toward any party, including gays or people who watch pornography.

“This is far less credible,” Bennett wrote in her decision. “Although banter between parties in a firehouse occurs, and is to be expected, the statement of someone watching too much gay porn was intended to be insulting. This was shown through (Bernal’s) inadequate explanation as to why he chose to use this statement.”

Bennett ruled that the gravity of the incident, as well as the number of past policy violations and prior warnings, were all factors to be considered in determining whether Bernal had committed workplace misconduct that disqualified him from collecting unemployment benefits.

Bennett ruled against Bernal and found that he was not entitled to unemployment benefits, stating that he had chosen “to publish to anyone that happened to look at his subordinate’s Facebook page a statement about a fireman’s interest in gay porn … The statement undoubtedly puts the captain and the fire department in an unfavorable light.”

Other unemployment claims

Other Iowans whose unemployment claims recently went before a judge include:

Justin Herrick, who worked for the Iowa Department of Corrections, most recently as a supervisor at the Anamosa State Penitentiary. He was fired in late July for violating sexual harassment policies. The state alleged that on June 29, 2023, Herrick was working alongside another correctional supervisor and a subordinate employee when he began singing, to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” a song that suggested the subordinate “sucks my d—.”

During the subsequent investigation of the incident, Herrick didn’t deny singing the song, but dismissed it “locker room banter.” The Iowa Department of Administrative Services concluded that Herrick had violated the Department of Corrections’ “sexual harassment policy on June 29, 2023, and on multiple prior occasions.” He was denied unemployment benefits.

Natya Sturm, who had worked as a paramedic for Crawford County Memorial Hospital since 2016. According to the hospital, on June 9, 2023, Sturm administered pain medication to a patient who was being transported to the hospital in an ambulance. The ambulance had a limited supply of narcotics on board and Sturm ran out of the first drug that she administered. Because the patient was still in a significant amount of pain, Sturm administered a second medication to the patient to lessen the pain, the hospital alleged.

She was later fired for allegedly exceeding her discretion in the amount of medication she administered. Sturm was awarded unemployment benefits, with the judge in her case ruling that she had “exercised her judgment as a medical professional and administered a narcotic to a patient in pain … Her actions were not unreasonable under the circumstances, and she did not knowingly ignore employer’s rules.”

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Des Moines fire captain fired over Facebook comment on 'gay porn'