D.C. fire truck. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

When Bolatito Ajose joined the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department in 2001, she and the other women new to the department were required to take pregnancy tests. Those who were pregnant were given a choice: Get an abortion or lose your job. Ajose says she was one of three women firefighters who opted to terminate their pregnancies.

Back then, Ajose says, she and the women sued and eventually settled out of court. But, she says, the culture inside FEMS that conditioned her employment on whether or not she was pregnant continues today.

Ajose is one of four Black women who filed a lawsuit against the department this week alleging discrimination based on sex and gender. Their attorney, Pam Keith, is also representing several Black female Metropolitan Police Department officers and employees, who are making similar claims.

“The goal is to get the fire department to come to the table and fix these things,” Keith says, adding that her four clients—Ajose, Jadonna Sanders, Shalonda Smith, and Takeva Thomas—are some of the few who’ve made it in the department for several years.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges that the four women have been subjected to disparate treatment in terms of bonus pay, disciplinary actions, and overtime opportunities.

Lt. John Barnes is named in the lawsuit as the alleged primary culprit in creating an unfair overtime distribution system that favors himself and male officers and denies opportunities to Black women.

“For several years, Lt. Barnes manipulated the overtime assignment system to give himself excessive overtime hours, and consistently denied overtime opportunities to Plaintiffs,” the lawsuit says. “Despite multiple complaints, Lt. Barnes was allowed to continue unfairly manipulating the overtime assignment system to disadvantage the few Black women inspectors and investigators in the division, and to give repeated and excessive overtime hours to his preferred inspectors, all of whom were men.”

The lawsuit says the Office of the Inspector General started an investigation into Barnes’ and FEMS’ overtime practices in 2021. That investigation is ongoing, according to the lawsuit.

Ajose says she was one of six firefighters eligible for a promotion to arson investigator. She says she earned one of the highest scores among the applicants, but was passed over in favor of four men. FEMS typically publishes a ranking of test scores but the agency didn’t post them in 2017, according to Ajose. She retook the test and applied for the job in subsequent years but never received the promotion, she says. She currently works as an inspector, looking for fire code violations in commercial buildings.

Ajose and some of her fellow plaintiffs also say they have been denied a 15 percent pay bump given to firefighters who are certified as paramedics. The lawsuit describes how FEMS tried to fix the disparity, but instead of providing back pay and increasing the plaintiffs’ wages, issued separate, quarterly lump sum payments. Those payments aren’t factored into overtime pay and retirement, Ajose says.

FEMS Chief John Donnelly has declined to comment on the pending litigation, but told WJLA the department has “a long history and a recent history” of hiring and promoting women.

“Hiring is not how you fix a women problem,” Keith says. “Retention is how you fix a race and gender problem. If they’re there in 15 years, then you’ve fixed something. Here are some of the few women who made it a long time, but they have to bend and scrap and beg to be treated fairly.”