Chicago Fire Dept. paramedics sue city for pervasive sexual harassment
The 57-page suit alleges the city has failed to deter a long-standing, pervasive culture of sexual harassment throughout the department’s firehouses and facilities
By Annie Sweeney and Jason Meisner
CHICAGO — The female Chicago Fire Department paramedic had allegedly been fending off lewd comments and sexual advances from a superior for weeks last fall when she had an unnerving encounter with him after she went into private firehouse sleeping quarters to get some rest.
She’d taken off her boots and the room was dark when the superior — a field chief and 38-year veteran — entered the firehouse using a special key, opened the door and said, “I see you are laying down,” according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Fearing she would be sexually assaulted, the woman jumped up and demanded the chief turn the lights on. After he refused and took a step toward her, she pulled back her foot and prepared to defend herself with kicks. “Maybe I should leave,” the chief allegedly said.
The woman reported the incident to another boss who took it up the chain of command. Not only was the field chief not disciplined but also within days rumors began to spread among the woman’s co-workers that she was unstable. One fellow paramedic turned his back on her when she arrived at an accident scene.
The harrowing allegations were included in a federal sexual harassment and gender discrimination lawsuit filed against the city Tuesday by five female paramedics who claim they were groped, stalked and forced to endure repeated sexually explicit remarks from superiors.
The 57-page suit alleges the city has failed to deter a long-standing, pervasive culture of sexual harassment throughout the department’s firehouses and facilities, allowing men accused of wrongdoing to remain on the job while their accusers were often put on medical leave.
The conditions have been exacerbated by the city’s failure to provide even basic equalities for women, from adequate bathrooms to separate sleeping quarters, the suit alleged.
Much of the alleged sexual misconduct occurred in the midst of the national #MeToo movement that put a spotlight on egregious behavior in the workplace — often by male superiors who use their power or celebrity to harass or assault an underling.
In addition to the allegations against the field commander, three other women made allegations against the same ambulance commander. One said he tried to kiss her and force her to inappropriately touch him. The two others said he made repeated sexually explicit comments, including asking, “What kind of panties do you wear at work?”
A fifth woman alleged that she was targeted for retaliation after she filed a complaint and ultimately an order of protection against her former boyfriend, a longtime firefighter. In October, she was accused of making false allegations against another department member and threatened with termination, although the allegations were later dismissed as unsustained, according to the suit.
All five plaintiffs were listed in the suit as Jane Does. Their attorney, Lynn Palac, said in an email that they did not wish to comment publicly, adding the women “want to remain productive employees” but filed the lawsuit as a way to get “relief from the current hostile work environments.”
“The fire department and city has known about these complaints for a while and done absolutely nothing for these women,” Palac said.
Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, declined to comment specifically on the suit but said in a statement that “the city of Chicago does not tolerate harassment of any kind.”
Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford also had no comment on the allegations or if any of the men accused in the suit had been disciplined or removed from duty.
The field chief accused in the complaint allegedly talked openly with his female subordinate about his home sex life, saying his wife was a grandmother who “acted like it.” He solicited the woman for a “no-strings” sexual relationship and repeatedly texted her sexually inappropriate messages, according to the suit.
Many of the messages contained an almost middle-school brand of sexual humor.
“I’ll hook up with you later (nyuck nyuck) and make sure you get off,” the chief wrote in one text about the woman’s request to trade ambulance assignments.
Another one of the women who filed suit alleged that she was subjected to several unwanted sexual advances by an ambulance commander, including an incident in April 2017 when the commander grabbed her when the two were alone in a medic room at St. Joseph Hospital and “kissed her and licked her face.”
As the woman tried to push him off of her, the commander allegedly said, “Come on, you know you want it,” before grabbing her wrist and forcing her hand on his genitals, according to the suit. She ran out of the room but then had to work with him on the ambulance the rest of the night, the suit alleged.
The woman filed a complaint with the city’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office, but when investigators interviewed her months later, they threatened her with discipline herself for failing to disclose the name of a friend she said she’d told about the abuse.
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