CFD policies ‘insufficient’ to combat discrimination and sexual harassment: inspector general

The survey of Chicago Fire Department personnel included 45 women, and 28 of them — 62% — reported being sexually harassed.

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A Chicago Fire Department truck.

Sun-Times file

The Chicago Fire Department has a long and documented history of discrimination and racial hijinks that has triggered a parade of lawsuits, multi-million-dollar settlements, policy changes and back pay.

To this day, CFD is 90% male and 66% white with an entrenched culture that can be openly hostile to Blacks, Hispanics and women.

On Wednesday, Inspector General Joe Ferguson shined a glaring spotlight on the white male bastion of city government and demanded immediate changes — in policy, training and protecting from retaliation firefighters and paramedics who complain about sexual and racial discrimination.

The audit was accompanied by a survey that showed that 73 of all 285 respondents, both male and female — that’s 26% — reported having experienced sexual harassment “at least once” at CFD.

Even more troubling was the rate of sexual harassment of women. There were 45 female survey respondents, and 28 of them — 62% — reported being sexually harassed at CFD.

The harassment included sexually suggestive remarks, open display of sexually suggestive material, aggressive leering or staring.

“Firefighters and paramedics live together while on duty, spend 24-hour shifts with each other and work in a high-risk, high-stress environment where their lives and the lives of others depend on members’ cooperation and mutual trust. These conditions require a thoughtful and tailored approach that goes beyond adoption of the blanket policy that covers all city employees,” Ferguson was quoted as saying.

“We recommend that the department address these challenges sooner rather than later and make a firm commitment to improving workplace conditions and culture.”

Ferguson acknowledged existing CFD policies comply with federal, state and local laws. But he branded the policies, complaint process and training used to enforce and promote those policies “insufficient to meet the environmental challenges” posed by the department’s “command-and-control-service operations.”

He also concluded the department’s culture and workplace environment “may make some members vulnerable to discrimination and/or sexual harassment.”

The audit also showed CFD’s process for scheduling interviews with members who made formal complaints “placed them at risk of retaliation and potentially discouraged them from reporting misconduct.”

To change the culture, Ferguson proposed:

• Training for all 5,000 CFD employees “tailored specifically to CFD’s unique workplace environment.”

• Written guidance and training to Internal Affairs staffers on how to handle complaints of discrimination and sexual harassment in a “trauma-informed manner.”

• Appointing a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer.

• Developing a specific strategy to protect reporting members and victim from potential retaliation.

The Fire Department responded with a promise to create written guidelines, increase training and work to create the new position in the 2022 budget.

But CFD argued that developing a “strategic approach” to the issues highlighted in the audit would have to wait until a new fire commissioner is appointed to replace now-retired Fire Commissioner Richard C. Ford II.

The survey results were troubling, but not surprising given the department’s recent history of discrimination.

In 2013, Chicago spent nearly $2 million — and $1.7 million more in legal fees — to compensate dozens of women denied firefighter jobs because of a discriminatory test of upper body strength that City Hall has now scrapped.

Three years later, a dozen women accused the Chicago Fire Department of devising two new physical agility tests that were equally biased against women.

In 2014, a payroll auditor for CFD filed a federal lawsuit against the city — armed with a finding ofdiscrimination by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that upheld her sexual harassment charge against former Fire Commissioner John Brooks.

Four years later, five female paramedics filed a federal lawsuit accusing their superiors of sexual harassment and alleging the fire department “directly encourages” the illegal behavior by failing to “discipline, supervise and control” its officers.”

Allegations of sexual discrimination also forced CFD change its policy impacting pregnant employees and nursing mothers.

Even with that history, quotes attributed to survey respondents were troubling.

One female employee complained: “Women are treated like garbage. Period. I see it every single day at work and this survey is going to get buried and nothing will get done.”

Another respondent wrote: “It is tough on this job being a minority, especially when there are some in ranks who have influence on discipline and day-to-day operations that show their discriminatory actions in a subtle manner.

One respondent reported being forced to endure “racist photos and language at predominately white” firehouses.

“Early on in my career, I had a lieutenant who would call me s--- and crybaby minority,” the respondent added, using a slur for Latinos. “On other occasions I was called the affirmative action employee. Countless times have I heard the N-word.”

Also in the report: instances of men relieving themselves with the door open; sleeping arrangements where women were sent to undesirable areas of the firehouse; and a refusal to assist with equipment and moving victims.

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