Monday, November 20, 2017
News Roundup

Fired Tampa firefighter’s sex discrimination case opens with talk of shower peepers

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TAMPA — The highest ranking woman in the history of Tampa Fire Rescue said Tuesday that she has been peeped on while showering. She said it in front of a judge and seven jurors at a sex discrimination trial in U.S. District Court, while describing the perils of a shared workplace bathroom.

"The biggest struggle is when you’re the only female and there’s a bunch of men," Division Chief Susan Tamme testified at a former colleague’s lawsuit against the city of Tampa. "One gender is going to get to use the restroom first and the other person is going to wait and hold it."

Tamme was the first witness to appear in Tanja Vidovic’s sexual discrimination case. Vidovic and others voiced concerns in 2015 over sexual harassment, lack of separate bath and changing rooms for women, being passed over for promotion and a general culture of discrimination.

At the time of the complaints, many other Tampa Bay area rescue agencies had already accommodated a diverse workforce.

Vidovic, hired in 2008, repeatedly spoke out about her treatment as a woman in the department, especially while she was pregnant. She said in depositions that she was forced to pump breast milk in a hazardous material room and was not allowed to work her typical shift, despite a doctor saying she was cleared.

"You’re supposed to be judged by your ability, not on your gender or whether you’re pregnant or if you speak up," Vidovic’s attorney, Wendolyn Busch, told a four-woman, three-man jury in opening statements.

Vidovic filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and was later passed over for promotions, Busch said, despite testing well and ranking above other men on the promotion list.

When conditions did not improve, Vidovic, through a lawyer, informed the city of her intent to file a lawsuit. She was then fired in March 2016.

The city said she was fired for untruthfulness, and that was the theme of its defense Tuesday.

Attorney Thomas Gonzalez spent much of his nearly 45-minute opening outlining times Vidovic had been inconsistent in her statements.

He said she lied about a medical form required of all firefighters who visit a doctor, even a dentist. He said Vidovic didn’t supply the form.

"The whole issue was about fitness for duty," he said.

Busch said Vidovic had twice passed a fit-for-duty test but was nonetheless criticized for working full duty while pregnant.

The city disputes that.

Speaking from her own experience, Tamme testified that she had never taken a fit-for-duty test or ordered another firefighter to take one in her nearly 24 years at Tampa Fire Rescue.

Gonzalez also said that Vidovic’s concerns about bathroom privacy on the job were shared by both men and women, so it wasn’t a gender issue. And that instances of peeping, such as with Tamme, could still exist even if there were separate bathrooms for men and women.

"This a claim of discrimination based on sex," he told the jury. "She is going to need to prove she was treated differently."

Tamme was also questioned about an email Vidovic sent to Tamme and a handful of other women in 2013 regarding the bathrooms, privacy and the nonexistent pregnancy policy. That email was leaked and made its way around the department, angering many women who said Vidovic didn’t speak for them.

The next year, Tamme was ranked first on the promotion list for district chief — a position no woman had ever held at Tampa Fire Rescue. But fire Chief Tom Forward chose a lower-ranking man to fill that position and two other openings after it.

After getting passed over three times, Tamme met with Forward about why she wasn’t selected. She said the fire chief told her he had expected her to assist in the situation with Vidovic.

"He said I had an opportunity to show leadership, and I didn’t," Tamme said.

Tamme asked him, "Were other candidates also expected to manage the situation?"

Forward, she said, told her, "No."

The trial will reconvene at
10 a.m. today.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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