SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A group of 14 firefighters over the age of 40 claim the city fire department discriminated against them by suddenly changing a lieutenant’s exam from oral to written to weed out older applicants for the position.
In their complaint filed in Superior Court, the firefighters say “after investing over two years preparing for an oral examination, plaintiffs, including all applicants for examination, were forced to completely revamp, reevaluate, and re-posture the way they studied for an entirely different examination with mere notice of 30 days or less.”
The unexpected change also “diminished the chances of firefighters over the age of 40 from performing well on the examination,” they claim, since older firefighters were trained to communicate firefighting tactics verbally, unlike younger firefighters, whose training predisposed them to do well on a written exam.
“Experienced examinees … were forced to choose between what their experience had taught them was the correct operating procedure and what they thought would be the correct answer on the examination,” the group says.
Despite complaints from older applicants, the department proceeded with the exam in May 2008, and they claim it even skewed the scoring in favor of younger examinees because the department did not want older lieutenants.
All 14 were demoted after they failed to score above 500 points, were forced to accept pay cuts and were unable to retire at a high rank. They also claim to have suffered mental and emotional health problems, such as weight loss, insomnia, high blood pressure and depression, and many have had to endure constant ribbing from their subordinates over their lesser positions.
“‘I have lost the love for the profession that I have been a part of since I was 18 years old,'” plaintiff Rohan Knight, 50, said in the complaint. “‘I have to work under people who have far less experience and knowledge than I do. I, and others, fear that their inexperience will lead to injury or loss of life. When I work with a new lieutenant with four years experience who is now going out as a captain it makes me sick to my stomach.'”
Fifty-three year-old firefighter Roberto Lucha said in the complaint that his demotion has had a “devastating effect” on his health and self-esteem, and is starting to strain his family life. “‘When I go to work I feel humiliated. I feel like the last man standing on scorched earth (everything around me has collapsed). I don’t feel happy,'” he said. “‘My wife says it is affecting our marriage and I agree with her. I would like to be made whole again.'”
For the department’s age discrimination and retaliation against them, the firefighters demand the institution of a fair testing process for promotion to lieutenant, decertification of the eligibility list for that position and compensatory damages for their loss wages and benefits.
They are represented by Murlene Randle.