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Women to share $1.98 million after discriminatory firefighter test

Updated: September 5, 2013 4:45PM



Chicago will spend nearly $2 million — and up to $1.7 million more in legal fees — to compensate dozens of women denied firefighter jobs because of a discriminatory test of physical abilities that measured upper-body strength but had nothing to do with the job.

The $1.98 million, expected to be approved by the City Council’s Finance Committee on Friday, will be divided among roughly 50 women who are now beyond the Chicago Fire Department’s mandatory age limit of 38.

In all, 183 women were discriminated against after passing a 2006 written exam but failing a 2010 test of physical skills that the city has now scrapped.

Marni Willenson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said individual cash awards are likely to range from $8,000 to $18,000. The more women who get jobs as Chicago firefighters, the more money there will be to distribute among those who don’t.

Ninety-two women showed up to reapply after one week’s notice from the Fire Department. Eighty of them are still going through the hiring process.

Lead plaintiff Samantha Vasich is one of the lucky ones. She came close to passing the revised test of physical skills, three months after nearly bleeding to death following an emergency C-section and losing another month after throwing her back out in training. She plans to take the test again.

Vasich, 29, said it was “heartbreaking” to be turned away without explanation after a physical test she was certain she passed and “comforting to know” she wasn’t alone. Other women suffered the same crushing blow.

“I’ve always been fit my whole life. We have just as much right to be there as any man,” Vasich said.

“I know it’s a male-dominated work force. I know that a lot of men look down on women who want to enter the firehouses. There’s proof of that on the blogs. But I know I’m physically capable of doing it. I proved it by almost dying giving birth and throwing my back out,” then passing the new test.

After taking a maternity break, Vasich said she hopes to begin working for the Chicago Fire Department next spring.

“It’s a great job. You’re set for pension and benefits. I’m doing it for myself and for my daughter — to show her don’t stop. Whatever you want to do, go for it. Don’t give up,” she said.

Willenson said the now-scrapped 2010 test was an “almost pure upper-body strength” exam that had nothing to do with measuring the skills firefighters need to do the job.

The Emanuel administration agreed to throw it out and use a skills test developed by the International Association of Fire Fighters to assess bypassed female candidates for the next two classes of firefighters.

“Lots and lots of those women are not only capable of doing the job. They’ll be great at it. They knocked out very capable people and a more diversified workforce,” Willenson said.

“The face of the force matters a lot. When the public sees first responders, you want it to reflect the city. That’s a tremendous role model for young girls — to see that women can do that job. If women can be on the front lines [in combat], clearly women can hold fire hoses. And 90 percent of the runs are now medical calls. The job has really changed.”

Last year, Chicago borrowed the $78.4 million needed to compensate nearly 6,000 African-American would-be firefighters bypassed by the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 entrance exam. The borrowing compounded the cost of a settlement that was twice as high as anticipated.

The city had already agreed to hire 111 bypassed black firefighters. The cash damages went to about 5,900 others who never got that chance.

Email: fspielman@suntimes.com

Twitter: @fspielman



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