On March 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis found in favor of two women firefighters who have been tangling with the Kansas City Fire Department over discrimination, harassment, inadequate station facilities, and improperly fitting protective gear -- and then over retaliation for filing the complaints -- for more than ten years. The resulting decision is particularly important because it marks the first time a federal appeals court has said that failure to provide adequate facilities and protective gear for women firefighters constitutes sex discrimination.
Both women had won lower court decisions. In 2001, a jury found in favor of Chief Kline and ordered the city to pay $50,000 in damages. The following year, a separate jury awarded Chief Wedow $285,000. It was these verdicts, which the city appealed, that were upheld on March 26.
Both women had submitted evidence that their gear fit so poorly that they were routinely hampered by it and even injured as a result of the poor fit. The appeals court noted that, even though the women had complained many times over the years, "no one in the fire department made any effort to provide Ms. Kline and Ms. Wedow with adequately fitting protective clothing" until 1998, when Kline received one set of gear sized for women, and Wedow received a women's coat and a pair of women's bunker pants. (Male firefighters in Kansas City receive two full sets of gear.)
Problems with the fire stations included a lack of private restrooms, showers, or changing facilities; in some stations, the women's shower was accessible only by walking through the men's bunkroom. Women's restrooms, where they existed, often doubled as storage rooms. The KCFD had known about the inadequacy of station facilities since at least 1993, and had budgeted for upgrades to the women's locker room every year, but the money was diverted to another purpose.
The appeals court said, in its decision:
"We cannot say as a matter of law that being required to work as a firefighter with inadequate protective clothing and inadequate restroom and shower facilities is a mere inconvenience... These conditions jeopardize (the female firefighter's) ability to perform the core functions of her job in a safe and efficient manner... (Thus) the failure to furnish the necessary correct gear and facilities on the basis of sex was an adverse employment action prohibited by Title VII."
Legal Momentum (formerly NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund) stepped in as co-counsel for the women during the appeal, and WFS filed an amicus brief on their behalf. For more information about the case, and to read a copy of the decision, see Legal Momentum's website.
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