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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Nov 29, 2011, 1:10 am

San Diego Lifeguard Wins Gender Discrimination Lawsuit

BY Kari Lydersen

Alison Terry was the fifth San Diego lifeguard to sue the city, but the first to win a case.   (Courtesy of Alison Terry)

SAN DIEGO -- Alison Terry is one of the best swimmers to come out of San Diego, setting numerous high school records and competing in the Olympic Trials. She also received national attention as one of relatively few successful African American swimmers in a largely white sport, and for her outreach efforts with inner-city kids. But after more than a decade working summers as a lifeguard in San Diego, she couldn’t get hired for a full-time year-round lifeguarding job.

On Nov. 18 a jury unanimously awarded Terry, 37, a $100,000 judgment in a gender discrimination lawsuit against the city of San Diego, finding there was intentional discrimination that led to a situation where only six women and 88 men held year-round managerial lifeguard positions with salary and benefits.

Physical strength had nothing to do with the gender imbalance—women made up more than a quarter of the seasonal summer force (46 women compared to 126 men) that actually do the most physical work saving swimmers and patrolling beaches, and earn hourly wages with no benefits. Terry alleged – and the jury agreed – that male guards intentionally made it difficult for women to obtain the necessary certifications and take the courses needed to win full-time positions. Terry was never promoted because she lacked a personal watercraft certification, but she said higher-ups made it impossible for her to get it. She told me:

They decide who gets trained and tested and when. (In delaying her training) they just keep making things up, things that aren’t in any written policy, like the water conditions aren’t good. But then someone else gets trained that same day. I know a lot of the men who are being promoted, I know what they bring to the table, so I can see what’s going on. I was one of the fastest swimmers in the department but that didn’t count for anything…That’s what a glass ceiling means – you can’t see it but you can feel it.

Terry was the fifth female San Diego lifeguard to sue the city and the first to win a case, as the others settled out of court. Attorney Mike Conger represented all five women. He told me that not only are women who apply for full-time positions being denied, most are not even applying because of the boys-club atmosphere and the way top male guards prevent them from taking necessary classes. Along with certifications for personal watercraft and tower operation, applicants also need three years of “outstanding” reviews as seasonal guards, he said, based on criteria like punctuality and following orders. He told me:

"Women are never given the highest rankings. We believe there is de-selection going on in the application process. It’s like if you put a sign on the hiring office door saying “Whites only need apply.” You won’t get a whole lot of black people applying."

Conger said a previous settlement bound the city to make changes in its promotion practices, but that didn’t happen. So Terry is pursuing injunctive relief, through a petition filed Nov. 22 with a hearing scheduled January 9, that would mandate changes in promotion policy. The petition, which will be decided by a judge, demands the city use objective written rather than subjective oral interviews, provide certification training in a non-discriminatory manner, provide seasonal guards with written criteria for promotion and appoint a monitor to make sure the mandates are followed.

In 1996, People Magazine featured Terry in a story about “real-life Baywatch,” referring to the David Hasselhoff TV show about southern California lifeguards. That story said: "Allison Terry, 22, a former high school swimming champion, is vastly outnumbered on her beat by men, but, she says, "I can outswim many of them, and they know it."

While working as a seasonal lifeguard, Terry helped coach a junior kayak team and did outreach to promote water safety in inner-city neighborhoods, traveling to elementary schools in a yellow lifeguard service helicopter and teaching kids the Stingray Shuffle. During part of her employment as a lifeguard she was also training for the 2000 Olympic Trials, as she made a comeback in her mid-20s after retiring from swimming for five years. "I would think those things would have helped me," she said. "If I was a man, I’m sure they would have, but instead I think it was the opposite."

Terry’s lawsuit also charged the city retaliated against her by not hiring her for seasonal work in 2007 after she filed her lawsuit in 2006. The complaint says:

Because of the seasonal nature of nonpermanent lifeguard work, we hold that the fact that Terry was scheduled during the 2006 summer season, but received no work during the 2007 summer season is no different than an employer waiting a few months before firing an employee who engaged in a protected activity.

Terry quit lifeguarding in 2009 out of frustration, she said. Now along with raising her young daughter  she works with disabled athletes. And she is still dedicated to increasing the diversity of the swimming and lifeguarding worlds and helping low-income, African-American kids access opportunities for swimming college scholarships and water-related jobs. Such work could entail partnering with the lifeguard service in the future, something she hopes can happen even after the vitriol she says she’s endured from former colleagues during the four-week trial. She said:

I just want them to make real changes, to stop denying things and take a serious look at themselves. I want them to see this as an opportunity to make themselves a stronger and better department…I don’t want my daughter to experience what I experienced, and I don’t want other women to experience what I experienced. That’s why we have laws like this, which other men and women fought hard for. So we need to fight to enforce it.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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