Colorado Firefighter Claims Gender and Age Discrimination

A volunteer firefighter in Colorado has filed suit claiming she was not hired for a paid position because of gender and age discrimination. Cynthia Winner filed suit against the Jefferson-Como Fire Protection District, its fire chief and a deputy chief.

Winner, 52, claims that despite having eight years of volunteer firefighting experience during which she responded to “over 175 calls,” and being “overwhelmingly qualified,” she was not hired for one of three paid positions the JCFPD advertised. Instead, younger male candidates with less experience were hired.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • Ms. Winner began volunteering with JCFPD in 2013 at age forty-four.
  • Prior to volunteering with the JCFPD, Ms. Winner volunteered for four years with [Park County Search and Rescue] PCSAR, a job requiring a similar skillset to that of firefighters.
  • In eight years of volunteering with JCFPD, Ms. Winner logged 820+ training hours and over 175 calls.
  • JCFPD has a consistent and long track record of not hiring women.
  • Except for one female employee who resigned in 2004, the only two women JCFPD hired into any position were female relatives of male employees.
  • Over the years, JCFPD male volunteers, firefighters, and supervisors referred to Ms. Winner as the “token girl,” a “liability,” a “joke,” and the “black sheep.”
  • Ms. Winner’s male peers said things like “Doesn’t she ever shut up” when she participated in class.
  • [Deputy Chief] Bargas has called Ms. Winner “stupid,” “a joke” and made other degrading comments about Ms. Winner.
  • Whenever Ms. Winner participated in a call, management exclusively gave her menial tasks such as traffic duty pump duty, or rehab duty (getting food and water for the crew on the fire line).
  • Even if a male with less experience and qualifications was on the call, these tasks would go to Ms. Winner.
  • One of the Lieutenants repeatedly told Ms. Winner that “women have no business being in the fire service.”
  • While Ms. Winner volunteered with JCFPD, open positions were not posted internally or externally.
  • Instead, JCFPD leaders would simply announce that a paid position would be opening up and ask who was interested in it.
  • Even though Ms. Winner consistently expressed her interest in becoming a paid firefighter this process almost always resulted in JCFPD’s hire of younger, less qualified male candidates (except for the Deputy Chief’s daughter who lasted only four months).
  • Until June 2021, rather than post open positions and hire firefighters through a transparent and fair application process, JCFPD simply offered younger male volunteers paid firefighter positions without an application, interview, or any tests.
  • In 2015, JCFPA hired two males in their twenties with approximately one year of experience – Caleb Wilson and Cole Duncan.
  • In 2017, JCFPD hired Dakota Kell (male, in his twenties), who had only two years of volunteer experience.
  • In 2018, JCFPD hired Tyler Swirka, a younger male.
  • In 2020, JCFPD handpicked Andrew Williams, a male in his thirties with only two years of volunteer experience.
  • Ms. Winner learned of the 2020 vacancy only after it was filled – when she saw Williams with specialized gear for paid firefighters and asked him about it.
  • Had Ms. Winner known about the 2020 opening, she would have applied for it.
  • By failing to post these openings, JCFPD ensured that Ms. Winner would not have the opportunity to compete for a paid firefighter position.
  • In June of 2021, the District posted openings for three paid firefighter positions.
  • These positions were posted only internally to give the current JCFPD volunteers an opportunity to apply.
  • Ms. Winner was excited to apply and reiterated her interest in EMT training, expressed many times in the past.
  • All candidates, including Ms. Winner, interviewed with (1) Deputy Chief Bargas, (2) Captain Arellano (Bargas’s son-in-law), and (3) retired volunteer Mark Kell.
  • [The complaint goes on to allege that Ms. Winner was asked more difficult questions during her interview than other applicants; that the department modified its physical abilities test to a much more arduous CPAT that caused her to injure her back; and declined to hire her for any of the three open positions.]
  • Of the three open firefighter positions, the first position was filled by a male candidate with similar credentials and experience to Ms. Winner (Reyes).
  • JCFPD gave the second to [Fire] Chief Smith’s twenty-one-year-old son Jessee Smith who lacked the minimum qualifications such as a valid driver’s license and a clean background check.
  • Upon information and belief, Jessee Smith’s criminal background includes 19 criminal actions, in which Smith was the Defendant.
  • Additionally, Smith lacked any relevant certifications, had only one year of service as a volunteer firefighter, and participated in four calls, compared to Ms. Winner’s over 175.
  • The third position remained vacant.
  • After learning that she would not be hired into a paid firefighting position, Ms. Winner asked Chief Smith for feedback on why she was not selected.
  • Chief Smith told Ms. Winner that she was not hired because of her “performance” during the interview process.
  • In September 2021, JCFPD posted a paid firefighter position to the public.
  • Ms. Winner notified Chief Smith of her interest in the position with JCFPD.
  • Ms. Winner was not interviewed for the position.
  • JCFPD raised the minimum qualifications/certifications requirements from the June posting, adding: Firefighter 1, Haz-Mat Ops, S130/190, and EMT B preferred, and must pass department physical test.
  • The EMT preference is only one level higher than Ms. Winner’s certifications.
  • JCFPD denied Ms. Winner (but not Jessee Smith) the opportunity to train for EMT certification earlier that year.
  • In October of 2021, Ms. Winner requested a temporary leave of absence.
  • In response to her request, JCFPD placed her on inactive status – something it has never done to male volunteers in similar situations.
  • JCFPD said that inactive status was appropriate for Ms. Winner because she missed three training sessions between August and October 2021; however, JCFPD cancelled the August training, and Ms. Winner and her family were ill with COVID-19 and therefore unable to attend trainings in September and October.
  • Inactive status disadvantaged Ms. Winner by making her ineligible for any paid job positions.
  • What is more, inactive status makes it nearly impossible for Ms. Winner to maintain her certifications because she is no longer affiliated with a fire department.

The suit alleges violation of Winner’s Constitutional right to Equal Protection under the laws; gender discrimination in violation of Title VII and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act; and age discrimination under the ADEA and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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