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Under fire, Chicago Fire Department changes the way it treats pregnant women

Sun-Times file photo

Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Fire Department paramedic Sarah Spriesch gave birth to twins a few weeks ago.

The reception Spriesch gets when she returns to her ambulance duties will be a lot less “humiliating” than it was after her 2014 pregnancy, thanks to the legal crusade she led, with help from from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

The Chicago Fire Department has dramatically altered its policy impacting pregnant employees and nursing mothers after the Illinois Department of Human Rights found “substantial evidence” that Spriesch was the victim of discrimination.

The settlement was reached, only after the ACLU followed the state investigation with a federal lawsuit that accused the fire department of discriminating against Spriesch before and after the paramedic gave birth.

Amy Meek, Women’s and Reproductive Rights Project staff attorney for the ACLU, said the first round of discrimination occurred when Spriesch was placed on paid administrative leave in June 2014, immediately after telling her supervisor that she was pregnant.

She wanted to continue working for at least a few more months and was physically able to do so, Meek said.

But department policy was to immediately place pregnant women on leave, depriving them of work assignments and their ability to earn thousands of dollars of supplemental pay.

Pregnant women were also required to use up all of their accumulated sick and disability leave. If they needed that time later, they didn’t have it to use.

The humiliation continued when Spriesch returned to work after the birth of her first child, Meek said.

“On her first day back she told the training instructor that she needed to pump. He didn’t know what a pump was and refused her break time until she was actually engorged. She was leaking through her shirt and in tears before they allowed her to take a lunch break to pump,” Meek said.

“And because she lost her [permanent] assignment, she could be placed at any firehouse, based on whatever their operational needs were for each shift. And most of the firehouses didn’t have women’s locker rooms or any other private designated space for pumping. So, she had nowhere to pump but the dirty restrooms.”

Spriesch could not be reached for comment.

The new policy was implemented late last year just in time for Spriesch’s second, more complicated pregnancy with twins that required her to take an earlier leave.

“She made the decision of when she went on leave — not her employer. And because they’ve created a separate pregnancy leave status, she’s not worried this time around that she’s using up all of her sick time,” Meek said.

When Spriesch returns to work, the new policy will guarantee her regular breaks and a clean, private, non-restroom space to pump breast milk.

Still, Meek said a fire department that has spent decades in the Dark Ages has a “long way to go” before it will be welcoming to pregnant women. She noted that many firehouses still lack separate locker rooms for women.

Fire department spokesman Larry Langford said the 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 nine 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 openly 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. ”

Already, 61% of CFD employees have been trained in the new policies and procedures. The rest will be trained by the end of the year, he said.

Two months ago, five female paramedics filed a federal lawsuit accusing their superiors of sexual harassment.

The suit alleged that the Chicago Fire Department “directly encourages” the illegal behavior by failing to “discipline, supervise and control” its officers and by intimidating and punishing women who dare to report the harassment.

“Municipal policy-makers are aware of – and condone and facilitate [the misconduct] – by their inaction, a code of silence in the CFD by which employees fail to report misconduct committed by other male officers,” the lawsuit alleged.