Nine-year tab for Chicago Fire Dept. bias claims: $92 million

Engine House 1 in the Loop is one of four in the Chicago Fire Department that underwent an EEOC investigation from a charge of unequal facilities for women. Photo by Jared Rutecki | BGA

Discrimination lawsuits involving the Chicago Fire Department’s hiring and promotions have cost taxpayers nearly $92 million over the past nine years — easily outpacing all other major cities except New York.

Chicago police misconduct cases have been in the spotlight over the past few years, but the array of discrimination lawsuits aimed at the fire department — with a reputation for a macho culture that has long resisted diversity — is also rapidly burning through city cash, a Better Government Association analysis of city data shows.

Chicago’s fire department long had few African-American firefighters, and its first women didn’t join the force until 1986. And change even after that has come only in fits and starts that has contributed mightily to a mounting legal bill for the city.

As recently as December, the City Council approved the final payout of a $7 million settlement with 59 African-American women who sued over a physical skills test the fire department once required of job candidates. The women alleged the test was rigged to keep them off the force.

“The city has a terrible history in recruitment,” said Marni Willenson, an attorney for the women. “It has done nothing to bring women into the fire ranks.”

Since 2008 — the furthest back that records were readily available — Chicago has paid nearly $92 million in workplace discrimination cases involving the fire department. The cost has been flying under the radar for years and dwarfs the total of similar payouts for all other major U.S. cities except New York, records show.

The vast majority of the Chicago payouts – more than $85 million – have been made since Rahm Emanuel became mayor in 2011, though many of the underlying lawsuits predated his time in office and the biggest expenditure ties back to a case filed in 1998 when Richard M. Daley was mayor.

In all, the $92 million total stems from about a dozen lawsuits. Though one suit that cost the city $6 million was a reverse discrimination case, the others focused on discrimination against minorities and women. Specifics vary from case to case, but in general plaintiffs accused the fire department of broad discrimination in both hiring and promotions based on race, gender and disabilities.

A current lawsuit includes allegations a nursing mother working in a training facility was repeatedly denied access to her breast pump while on duty and that someone smeared feces on a female candidate’s training uniform in the changing area. The city has denied the allegations.

In a statement emailed to the BGA, Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said the department is committed to continuing to reach its goals “of being a more inclusive and accommodating employer for all members.”

Marni Willenson, attorney for applicants for positions as Chicago women firefighters in 2013. File Photo. | John H. White~Sun-Times

The $92 million tab includes not just settlements and judgments but also court costs and fees. On top of that, the city has also spent at least $2.2 million in just the past two years on outside attorneys to handle fire department discrimination lawsuits on the city’s behalf.

By far the biggest bill to the city stems from the 1998 case brought by minority job applicants who argued a pre-employment written test was biased. After losing several times in court, including in the U.S. Supreme Court, the city has paid more than $75 million in damages, back pension payments and fees to the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Almost all of the payments in the so-called “Lewis” class have occurred since Emanuel’s 2011 election.

Under Emanuel, the city has been aggressive in moving to settle lingering discrimination cases involving the fire department.

Jane Elinor Notz, the city’s first assistant corporation counsel, told aldermen during a Finance Committee meeting in December that settling discrimination suits rather than fighting them in court often makes financial sense. The $7 million settlement in the testing dispute with African-American women “minimized the city’s potential exposure of more than $34 million, and it increased the diversity of CFD by hiring firefighters from a traditionally under-represented demographic,” Notz told aldermen.

Of the 10 largest cities in the nation, only New York’s tab of about $109 million since 2008 exceeded the legal costs incurred by Chicago. New York’s fire department has more than 15,000 firefighters compared to 4,900 for Chicago.

Among the other cities, San Antonio paid nothing in workplace fire department discrimination claims, while San Jose, Phoenix, Houston and Dallas each paid less than $1 million in settlements and judgments. Philadelphia paid out $1.4 million; San Diego paid $2.3 million; and Los Angeles forked over $14 million, according to records obtained by the BGA through open records laws.

While the largest payments stemmed from actions that occurred during Daley’s tenure as mayor, the swirl of accusations about department wrongdoing continues.

Investigators for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission visited four city engine houses in November to inspect sleep, shower and locker room facilities used by women, according to Chicago attorney Alisa Arnoff, who is representing a female firefighter on a pending discrimination charge. She said the firehouses that underwent scrutiny included ones in the Loop, Near North Side and Mount Greenwood neighborhoods.

Langford didn’t confirm the EEOC probe but in the emailed statement said the fire department is working to “fund the necessary changes to facilities to meet the needs of its changing workforce to work and live while on duty.”

Jared Rutecki is an investigator with the Better Government Association.

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