The U.S. Justice Department is seeking to join a group of female deputies in their sex discrimination lawsuit against the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.
The federal lawsuit filed by 21 female jail deputies targets the job assignments that segregate officers from working with inmates of the opposite sex. The lawsuit was filed late last year, just before Sheriff Drew Alexander put the plan in place in January.
The deputies claim the old system worked well for several years and that the new assignments are discriminatory and have resulted in lost wages. The suit seeks an end to the gender-based assignment policy, plus lost wages and attorney fees. The case is before U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi.
“We are committed to working for equal opportunity for all,” said Steven Dettelbach, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. “Female deputies are capable of performing jobs they’re restricted from under Summit County’s current system, and this lawsuit is designed to end that discriminatory practice.”
Attorneys for the deputies declined comment Friday. A spokesman for Alexander said the office could not comment about pending lawsuits.
According to the’ lawsuit, female jailers were previously assigned some duties without regard to the inmates’ gender. For example, men and women could work a position booking and registering all inmates, as well as general jail security.
The new system restricts women to “female only” positions with female inmates.
Sheriff’s officials contend in court papers that the changes were made to ensure the agency had enough female deputies to cover three eight-hour shifts while complying “with legal requirements for strip searches and showers, and to address security concerns and to protect the privacy issues of the inmates.”
Over the years, more and more of the agency’s 36 female deputies were using their seniority to bid on day-shift jobs. As a result, six females were left to work the midnight shift while 23 worked days.
Generally, 80 percent of the inmates are men.
In 2010, the sheriff’s office sought a bona fide occupational qualification — essentially a waiver — from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission to meet staffing goals, according to court records. Jail supervisors sought to implement a system based on the privacy issues regarding inmate showers and strip searches, to ensure female deputies were available for all shifts and that only female deputies would patrol the female section of the jail.
The commission granted the waiver, in part to meet Ohio law regarding inmate privacy. Later, the waiver was inserted into the deputies’ collective-bargaining agreement by an arbitrator, court records show.
As a result, segregated female and male security and intake positions, along with a female floating position were created. The position of general security was eliminated.
The female deputies contend that under the new system, they are eligible to work only 32 of the office’s 143 positions.
Deputies were told in a Nov. 14 memo that “female deputies may only bid for female assignments.” Another memo, dated Dec. 5, said: “Any female whose bid sheet shows their first choices in male positions will be invalid, and that deputy will be placed on a shift and given days off that are vacant.”
In a news release by the U.S. Justice Department, authorities said the female deputies sought reconciliation through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The case was referred to federal authorities, who are now asking Judge Lioi that they be added as plaintiffs against the sheriff’s office.
“The Department of Justice will not tolerate discrimination in employment on the basis of sex,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division.
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.