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Female paramedic’s 96-hour shift may have violated Title VII, court says

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A federal district court ruled April 15 that an Arkansas city may have unlawfully discriminated against a former female paramedic when the fire chief changed the schedule and required her to work two back-to-back 48-hour shifts (Sirmon v. City of McGehee).

The chief released a new schedule requiring paramedics to work 48 hours on, then 24 hours off, according to court documents. But during the switch from the old schedule to the new one, the plaintiff would have had to work two consecutive 48-hour shifts with no break in between.

Based on this and other actions, the paramedic sued the city under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act for allegedly discriminating against her because she is female.

The court said she could take the scheduling claim to trial because evidence suggested that requiring her to work 96 hours in a row — which would have required her to work 144 hours out of a 168-hour week — constituted an adverse action and raised an “inference of discrimination” that she was treated more harshly than similarly situated male employees.

Namely, “the City has not shown that it required Sirmon’s male coworkers to work such long hours,” and it failed to provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions, the court explained. The court denied the city’s motion for summary judgment on the claim.

The court, however, granted summary judgment for the city on the paramedic’s wrongful termination claim. According to the record, she told the fire chief she disapproved of the 96-hour schedule, asserting in court documents that it was dangerous because of sleep deprivation and placed her paramedic license at risk.

The paramedic then worked the first 48-hour shift, left and didn’t return to work the second 48-hour shift, according to the record. The chief fired her, citing insubordination and failing to work as scheduled.

The court rejected the paramedic’s claim that she was unlawfully fired because of her sex. It explained that the paramedic “has not identified any male employee who was treated more leniently after conduct of ‘comparable seriousness’ to her refusal to work scheduled shifts.”

Sex discrimination under Title VII involves treating someone unfavorably because of that person’s sex, including the person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or pregnancy, according to a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance.

The “similarly situated” concept helps courts make appropriate comparisons to co-workers outside the aggrieved employee’s protected class to determine whether the alleged treatment may have been discriminatory and violated the law.

For example, here, using commonly-applied factors, the court found the evidence suggested the paramedic and the male co-worker she compared herself to were similarly situated. While she had a different job title, “both answered to the same supervisor, performed identical work as emergency responders, and were interchangeable in covering shifts for the City,” the court said.

The paramedic also presented evidence that she was treated more harshly than the male co-worker, including that she was required to switch stations daily, cover his shift when it overlapped with the chief’s shift and take in-town calls, even though he didn’t, the court pointed out.

As for raising a trial question over whether requiring the paramedic to work 96 hours straight constituted an adverse action — a required element of her claim — the court said she did: She presented evidence that working such a long shift was dangerous and that when her male co-workers worked long shifts, they did so voluntarily, but otherwise relied on her to take their calls when their shifts overlapped.

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