The $156,360-a-year deputy district fire chief demoted for participating in a timekeeping scam also played a central role in discrimination that forced the Chicago Fire Department to change its policy impacting pregnant employees and nursing mothers, according to court records.
Earlier this week, the Sun-Times reported that the policy change was triggered by discrimination that victimized paramedic Karen Spriesch both before and after she gave birth.
The first round occurred when Spriesch was placed on paid administrative leave in June 2014, immediately after telling her supervisor that she was pregnant, even though she wanted to continue working for at least a few more months and was physically able to do so.
The second round occurred when Spriesch returned to work, told her training instructor she needed to pump and was repeatedly denied break time until her breasts became so engorged, she was leaking through her shirt and reduced to tears.
That’s where demoted Deputy District Chief Edgar Ignacio Silvestrini, director of the Fire Department’s Medical Section, came in, according to court records.
The instructor who denied Spriesch’s requests to take a break was described in the lawsuit as taking his marching orders from Ignacio Silvestrini.
“He informed Ms. Spriesch that Chief Ignacio had stated that, if she left the premises to obtain a pump, she would be considered absent without leave,” the lawsuit states.
“Ms. Spriesch was surprised, in that she was aware that the city grants breaks and the opportunity to leave the facility to fire academy candidates and other Fire Department employees at the fire academy building, including breaks to smoke or accomodate other personal needs,” Spriesch’s 2017 lawsuit states.
When the new mom asked to speak directly with Ignacio Silvestrini to explain her need for a break to express breast milk, the request was denied.
Over the next 3 1/2 hours, Spriesch made “multiple additional requests for a short break . . . as she was experiencing increasing pain and discomfort and her breasts were beginning to leak.”
The instructor “repeatedly consulted” with Ignacio Silvestrini and “thereafter, denied those requests.”
Finally, Spriesch could take the pain and humiliation no longer. It had been eight hours since she had last been able to nurse or pump. She informed the instructor that the “law requires employers to give workers reasonable breaks to pump.”
That’s when Spriesch was allowed to speak directly with the deputy district chief, reiterate the purpose of her urgent request for a break and tell him she believed there may have been a “misunderstanding.”
“Chief Ignacio responded, ‘The misunderstanding is, if you leave you’ll be AWOL,'” the lawsuit quotes the deputy district chief as saying.
The mayor’s office had no immediate comment when asked why Ignacio Silvestrini was never disciplined for his role in the alleged discrimination against Spriesch that gave the new mom a $6,000 settlement and resulted in a major policy change.
The new policy allows pregnant women to decide when to go on maternity leave and creates a separate pregnancy leave status.
When new moms return to work, the new policy guarantees them regular breaks and a clean, private, non-restroom space to pump breast milk.
In the timekeeping scam, Ignacio Silvestrini has been permanently demoted and faces a lengthy suspension for allegedly looking the other way while a paramedic-in-charge under his command left early with “regularity” to attend medical education classes on city time without clocking out appropriately.
Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said earlier this week that CFD “takes seriously its responsibility to provide all members with adequate, equal and dignified facilities” and will “continue to improve working conditions for all” in a department where 9 percent of the workforce is female.
That’s the highest percentage of any big-city fire department, he said.
“Currently, about a quarter of the department’s 100 firehouses have been upgraded with adequate facilities for nursing mothers, and a long-term Equal Access Facilities Plan is being implemented with a goal to upgrade half of the firehouses in the coming months,” Langford wrote in an email.
Langford acknowledged that the city “faces challenges in upgrading historic firehouse, some built in the 1800’s.”
But he said, “Any member who is not adequately served by available facilities may elect to be transferred to an upgraded firehouse. In addition, CFD has implemented a program that allows a member up to one year of full-time, paid maternity leave. ”