Chicago will change test for firefighter candidates to end sex discrimination

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Case in Point

June 4, 2013

Chicago will change test for firefighter candidates to end sex discrimination 

Eight women filed a class action against the city of Chicago, alleging discrimination in violation of Title VII. The class claimed the city assessed firefighter applicants using a strength-focused test that disparately impacts women. Vasich v. City of Chi.

The International Association of Fire Fighters developed the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) that most fire stations across the country use to assess applicants for firefighter positions. The test has eight parts, including a simulation of climbing stairs while being weighed down, running with a hose before dragging it 50 feet, raising and extending ladders, and forcefully breaking into a building. 

Despite the CPAT’s widespread use, the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) has used its own physical abilities test (PAT) since 1996. Candidates must pass the PAT before they can attend the Fire Academy. The test focuses on strength rather than firefighting tasks and has four parts: an arm lift, an arm endurance test, a hose drag, and a modified stair climb. Candidates are subjectively judged by proctors, and those who fail are not given their test results or told why they did not pass.

Out of more than 5,000 CFD firefighters, only 116, or 2 percent, are women, which is much lower than many other metropolitan areas. Although it has allegedly known for years that a strength-focused test disparately impacts women, the city nevertheless chose to use the PAT instead of the CPAT.

Several women who had previously worked as firefighters in other towns were told they failed the PAT. Less than a year after failing Angela Minnick, a certified firefighter in a different Illinois town, the CFD hired her to provide fitness training to Fire Academy attendees but still denied her entry as a candidate. Jessica Evans had passed the CPAT to become a firefighter in another town and had gone on fire suppression and emergency medical services calls with Chicago firefighters, but the CFD gave her a failing score on the PAT. Before taking the PAT, Samantha Vasich hired a personal trainer who developed a training plan that mimicked many of the tasks. She was able to complete them all but received a failing score on the test.

Minnick, Evans, Vasich, and five other women filed a class action against Chicago, alleging discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The defendant agreed to start using the CPAT and to allow women who were rejected to reapply. The city will establish a $2 million fund for women who are over the department’s age limit of 38. It will pay the class’s attorney fees and costs separately.

Citation: Vasich v. City of Chi., No. 1:11-cv-04843 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 11, 2013).

Plaintiff counsel: Marni Willenson and Susan P. Malone, both of Chicago; and Teresa Demchak, David Borgen, and AAJ member Lin Chan, all of Oakland, Calif.

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