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Cleveland fire captains allege discrimination, retaliation

Employers can make discrimination complaints by employees worse by penalizing those employees. That's what Cleveland's Emergency Medical Services (EMS) commissioner is accused of doing according to a lawsuit filed by five EMS captains. The captains, all of whom are African American, are also suing the city for discrimination and retaliation.

The discrimination, according to the plaintiffs, centered around shift assignments. Since EMS receives calls 24-7 every day of the year, shift assignments are important. Employees bid on assignments annually, and whether they get their chosen assignments is supposed to be determined by their seniority. The plaintiffs say that they were denied preferred days and shifts because of their race and/or gender after they'd gotten those shifts.

Although the commissioner has the right to reschedule a designated number of captains, those changes are also supposed to be made with seniority in mind. That's so that a shift isn't made up primarily or solely of inexperienced captains. In one instance, the plaintiffs say the commissioner replaced one of four black captains with a white captain because, in her words, "I cannot have a shift with all blacks on it."

The plaintiffs filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC) and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2017. According to the suit, the commissioner and the city admitted to considering race and gender when changing shift assignments. However, despite an order for the parties to settle via mediation, the suit says they weren't included in any resolution.

Further, according to the lawsuit, the city began to engage in a "campaign of punishment" against those who had filed a complaint. One of the plaintiffs was accused of abusing the sick leave policy and prohibited from calling in sick for 18 months.

The plaintiffs went back to the EEOC and OCRC, alleging retaliation. The EEOC gave them the right to file a lawsuit.

The suit alleges in part that the City of Cleveland "has been and continues to be aware of the historical supremacist problems within the division of Emergency Medical Services." The plaintiffs are seeking damages and an order prohibiting further retaliation.

No organization, public or private, wants to be accused of discrimination. A lawsuit can be costly in money and reputation. It's essential to handle such accusations wisely and carefully and to seek legal guidance immediately.

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