Monday, April 23, 2018
Public safety

Five things to know about alleged discrimination at Tampa Fire Rescue

TAMPA — Tanja Vidovic, the former firefighter who won a lawsuit against the City of Tampa for discrimination and retaliation, will make her first public appearance Tuesday at a forum on sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

FROM 2017: Jury awards former Tampa firefighter $245,000 in discrimination case

The event, organized by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, is aimed at both employers and employees of small businesses. The program starts at 10 a.m. in Student Services Building at the Hillsborough Community College Dale Mabry Campus.

Vidovic will give a speech just weeks after she prevailed in her two-year lawsuit against the city late last year.

Here’s what you need to know about Vidovic, and what she and other female firefighters said they experienced while working at Tampa Fire Rescue.

1. Vidovic won her case against the City of Tampa.

The trial lasted four weeks and included testimony about 20 witnesses, including fire Chief Tom Forward, other female firefighters, and former supervisors of Vidovic’s.

TRIAL COVERAGE: Tampa fire chief testifies in gender discrimination trial

The seven-person jury ultimately sided with Vidovic, saying the city discriminated against her because she was pregnant and then retaliated when Vidovic complained of the harassment.

However, they did not find that the city discriminated against her because she was a woman. The jury awarded her $245,000 in damages.

2. That case could already cost Tampa at least $550,000 — and the bills are still piling up.

The city owes Vidovic $245,000, as deemed by the jury. The city also owes its attorneys more than $300,000, according to 2016 and 2017 invoices from the firm. But that’s not all.

LATEST COVERAGE: Tampa’s losses mounting after losing firefighter sex discrimination trial

Depending on what U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich grants Vidovic in lost wages and pension benefits, plus attorneys’ fees, the city’s total bill could exceed more than $3 million.

The city can challenge all that, and has already asked the trial judge to declare a mistrial — but costs will keep rising if the judge grants the mistrial or if the city appeals.

3. This all started long before last year’s trial.

Vidovic was one of a handful of women who went on the record with the Tampa Bay Times in 2015 about issues they faced at Tampa Fire Rescue, including the lack of designated women’s bathrooms and private changing areas in most stations.

FROM 2015: Women face multiple hurdles within Tampa Fire Rescue

Some female firefighters said they were afraid to raise complaints about harassment or a hostile work environment because, many times, the actions are enabled by the captains.

A few who have spoken out against the status quo said they have faced a backlash, including verbal harassment, lower performance reviews and being skipped on promotion lists.

Vidovic sued the city in March 2016 for discrimination and harassment. The city fired her the next day.

4. Tamp Fire Rescue made some changes after women spoke out.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced a week after the initial Times story that the city would spend $160,000 to install 6-foot-high partitions in sleeping quarters at 16 of 22 firehouses, which did not have any walls or curtains to separate male and female firefighters. The city also announced that human resources officials would provide additional diversity training for Fire Rescue employees.

FROM 2015: Reports of unequal treatment for women prompt changes at Tampa Fire Rescue

Forward issued an order requiring firefighters to wear gym shorts and proper undergarments when in the department’s open dorms to maintain "good order and discipline."

The fire chief also reissued a 2013 memo instructing women assigned to firehouses without separate women’s bathrooms to use those in officers’ quarters and telling officers to coordinate with female employees on access to the facilities.

5. Most Tampa Fire Rescue stations still don’t have designated women’s bathrooms.

In April 2015, six of Tampa’s 22 fire stations had partitioned sleeping areas and designated male and female bathrooms and showers. That number has not changed, Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny said. However, any future stations, such as Station 23, which is expected to break ground this spring, will have separate bathrooms.

There is not room in the current budget to retrofit old stations with designated bathrooms, Penny said.

At those stations, women can either wait until there are no men in the bathroom and lock the door or use the officers’ bathrooms, which often requires walking through their private room and asking permission.

The situation is different in other local fire departments. All of the St. Petersburg Fire Rescue and Hillsborough Fire Rescue stations, for example, have separate male and female bathrooms and showers.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: TAMPA FIRE RESCUE DISCRIMINATION CASE

Women face multiple hurdles within Tampa Fire Rescue (April 6, 2015)

Reports of unequal treatment for women prompt changes at Tampa Fire Rescue Women face multiple hurdles within Tampa Fire Rescue (April 14, 2015)

Tampa firefighters reminded not to talk to media in wake of harassment allegations (April 20, 2015)

Tampa female firefighter fired after filing harassment lawsuit (April 7, 2016)

Fired Tampa firefighter’s sex discrimination case opens with talk of shower peepers (Nov. 14, 2017)

Witness in lawsuit tells of inconsistent treatment of Tampa female firefighter (Nov. 15, 2017)

Tampa Fire Rescue says pregnant firefighter insisted on working in the field much longer than others (Nov. 16, 2017)

Jurors hear from firefighter who filed sex discrimination case (Nov. 21, 2017)

City attorney grills ex-Tampa firefighter in discrimination trial (Nov. 28, 2017)

Retired fire captain denies sexually harassing employee who sued Tampa (Nov. 30, 2017)

Tampa fire chief testifies in gender discrimination trial (Dec. 4, 2017)

Jury awards former Tampa firefighter $245,000 in discrimination case (Dec. 7, 2017)

Tampa’s losses mounting after losing firefighter sex discrimination trial (Feb. 12, 2019)

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