The ACLU of Illinois represented Sarah Spriesch (formerly Sarah Murphy), a paramedic working for the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) who was forced onto leave because she was pregnant and, when she returned to work after giving birth, denied breaks and a clean place for expressing breast milk. Ms. Spriesch’s experiences illustrate the challenges that pregnant or breastfeeding paramedics and firefighters have long faced at CFD, where women make up less than 9 percent of CFD’s nearly 5,000 employees.
When Ms. Spriesch learned she was pregnant, she excitedly shared her news with her supervisor. But even though Ms. Spriesch was only about seven weeks pregnant and was willing and able to continue working, CFD immediately forced her onto medical leave and ordered her to stay confined to her home on leave throughout her entire pregnancy. As a result, Ms. Spriesch lost her ambulance company assignment and had to use up nearly all of her available medical leave time.
When Ms. Spriesch returned to work after giving birth, CFD refused to accommodate her need to express breast milk for her newborn child. On her first day back after maternity leave, Ms. Spriesch endured humiliation when CFD supervisors repeatedly denied her requests to take pumping breaks and told her she would be considered AWOL if she left. After several hours of such denials, Ms. Spriesch was leaking milk through her shirt, was engorged and was experiencing extreme discomfort. Only at that point did CFD allow Ms. Spriesch to take her lunch break, during which she had to express breast milk in her car. CFD supervisors refused to let Ms. Spriesch take any other breaks during the entire day she had to spend at the Fire Academy building.
For more than six months afterwards, CFD continued to deny Ms. Spriesch reasonable accommodations for expressing breast milk and retaliated against her for complaining. After Ms. Spriesch asked supervisors for a clean, private place to pump, she was told, “I don’t know how that’s going to happen.” For months, CFD continued to place her at firehouses where she would have nowhere to pump except for a dirty restroom, even though open spots were available at firehouses that would have accommodated her needs and CFD routinely accommodated other paramedics’ preferences in assignments.
The ACLU of Illinois filed a charge on behalf of Sarah Spriesch with the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The IDHR investigated and found substantial evidence that CFD had discriminated against Ms. Spriesch. On February 14, 2017, the ACLU of Illinois filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Spriesch, which is now in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. The lawsuit is now settled.
After Ms. Spriesch filed her lawsuit, CFD adopted new policies and procedures governing accommodations for employees who are pregnant, recovering from childbirth, or breastfeeding. Since then, Ms. Spriesch became pregnant again; just after settling her complaint, she gave birth to twin babies. She is now on maternity leave and looks forward to having breaks and a clean, private, non-restroom space to pump when she returns to work at CFD in the coming months.