CITY HALL — What do pushups have to do with being a paramedic? Nothing, an appeals court ruled in striking down a testing requirement that female applicants say is discriminatory.
The ruling was the latest blow to a controversial Fire Department hiring exam, with the court unanimously deciding the physical entrance exam showed a "lack of connection" with "real job skills," proving "fatal to Chicago's case."
The exam was used on Fire Department applicants under Mayor Richard M. Daley beginning in 2000 and up to 2014 under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It included an arm crank machine, a timed step test and a leg-strength test. The court opinion, written by Judge Daniel Manion, found that "the physical entrance exam ... risks cementing unfairness into Chicago's job-application process."
The physical performance test for Fire Department applicants has landed the city in hot water in the past, and Corporation Counsel Steve Patton has acknowledged, "Quite frankly, we had a problem with that test."
The city paid $2 million in a 2013 settlement with women applicants and $4.3 million in 2014 to 59 African-American women who applied and were discriminated against, in part through that test. Patton testified at the time before a City Council committee that women had an 81 percent failure rate on the physical test, which men passed 90 percent of the time.
According to the suit, from 2000 through 2009 some 1,100 people took the test, about 800 men and 300 women. Men passed 98 percent of the time and women 60 percent of the time.
The five plaintiffs in the Ernst v. City of Chicago case decided this week were all experienced paramedics and cheered the court ruling.
"It's been a long road with a lot of heartache," said Stacy Ernst. "We are happy with today's decision and feel vindicated that the court of appeals thoughtfully and thoroughly reviewed our case and justice has prevailed."
"We brought this case over 10 years ago, for all of the women who came before us and were told they just aren't good enough — when, in fact, they were — and for all of the women who will come after us and succeed," added Irene Res. "Today, the court agreed with us that the test used for all of those years had nothing to do with what we paramedics do on a daily basis. It's unfortunate the city was able to eliminate so many qualified women who are great paramedics and who would have done a great service to the public and the city."
According to their attorney Marni Willenson, the claims of intentional discrimination will return to district court for a new bench trial, while the women won outright on claims of disparate impact. A settlement on that issue could be costly to the city, as it involves back pay on the difference in salary and benefits from what they earned and what they might have earned with the Fire Department going back to 2004.
The Law Department, however, vowed to fight on, with spokesman Bill McCaffrey saying, "We are disappointed with the court’s ruling and will continue to vigorously defend this suit."
The city won lower federal district court rulings on the case in 2014 and 2015.
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