Court rules Fire Dept. paramedic test discriminates vs. women

SHARE Court rules Fire Dept. paramedic test discriminates vs. women

A federal appeals court on Monday ruled in favor of female paramedics in striking down a physical performance test used by the city to hire paramedics for over a decade. | File photo

In another in a long line of hiring discrimination rulings against the Chicago Fire Department, a federal appeals court on Monday ruled in favor of female paramedics in striking down a physical performance test used by the city to hire paramedics for over a decade.

The decision in the sex discrimination lawsuit, Ernst v. City of Chicago, overturns federal district court verdicts in 2014 and 2015 finding the city’s use of the test did not discriminate against female applicants.

“The physical entrance exam . . . risks cementing unfairness into Chicago’s job-application process,” the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said in siding with the paramedics.

The Fire Department has been mired in litigation over racially and sexually discriminatory hiring practices for decades.

“We are disappointed with the court’s ruling and will continue to vigorously defend this suit,” city Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said Monday.

The appeals court ruling strikes down a test used by the department from 2000 to 2014. Between 2000 and 2009, nearly 1100 applicants, including 800 men and 300 women, took the test. Of those, 98 percent of the male applicants passed. The passing rate for female applicants was 60 percent, and plaintiffs in Ernst v. City of Chicago alleged this amounted to disparate impact under federal discrimination law.

Judge Daniel Manion, authoring a unanimous opinion for the three-judge panel, questioned how some of the test elements, which included an arm crank machine, a timed step test, and a leg strength test, could measure any skill required of a Chicago paramedic. While the city maintained the test was necessary, the court found a “lack of connection between real job skills” and the test, calling that “fatal to Chicago’s case.”

Discrimination lawsuits against the department include the long-running Lewis v. City of Chicago, a more than 10-year-old race discrimination lawsuit which ended in a 2012 U.S. District Court injunction ordering Chicago to hire 111 African-American firefighters.

In 2013 and 2014, the city settled two class-action lawsuits with women rejected for employment based on physical performance tests designed by the same developer who created the new test now struck down by the appeals court. Those settlements, Vasich v. City of Chicago and Godfrey v. City of Chicago, led to the hiring of more than 40 women as firefighters.

Chicago attorney Susan Malone filed the Ernst lawsuit on behalf of five female paramedic applicants in 2004. Attorney Marni Willenson, who represented the women in the Godfrey and Vasich lawsuits, joined Malone in the lawsuit in 2011.

“We’re overjoyed. Our clients have been stoic in waiting for the decision. We were very hopeful and it’s really a historic victory,” Willenson said Monday. “The takeaway is that employers can’t use arbitrary tests, or tests that they claim has some remote relationship to a job requirement. And if we have to keep suing for decades until they stop adopting and administering tests that are being used to limit the number of women in the fire department — because that’s their only purpose — then so be it.”

Willenson asserted a connection between the city’s hiring practices and reports on the continuing disparity in wages between working men and women, adding, “We cannot claim to be surprised by a nationwide gender pay gap when 40% of the experienced female paramedics applying to the Chicago Fire Department are rejected and left in $15/hour jobs with private ambulance companies while 98% of the male applicants are hired by the fire department into excellent jobs with starting pay of over $50,000 per year.”

The plaintiffs in the case were Stacy Ernst, Irene Res, Kathy Kean, Dawn Hoard and Michelle Lahalih — all experienced paramedics.

“After so long, I’m feeling very happy, elated,” said plaintiff Ernst, a 44-year-old paramedic of 24 years. “I’m glad to see that the court did a very careful and thorough review of the case, and that justice has prevailed. It’s important that women can do this type of job. Patients and the community in general can benefit from having women in roles as paramedics out there delivering life-saving care.”

Res, a 45-year-old paramedic of 17 years, agreed: “We feel vindicated finally and so happy that women are not going to be told ever again that they’re not good enough when in fact they are just as good, if not better.”

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