A Dubuque firefighter is suing the city and its fire chief.
Jami Boss, who has worked for the department since 2011, filed the petition against the city and Fire Chief Rick Steines, alleging years of sexual harassment while she has been a firefighter, along with repeated attempts by the city to punish her regarding her residence. She is accusing the city of violating the Iowa Civil Rights Act for sex discrimination and retaliation.
A response filed for the city and Steines denies that such violations occurred, as well as denies many of the specific allegations outlined in Boss’s suit. The next hearing for the case in Iowa District Court of Dubuque County is slated for Dec. 2.
Boss’s lawsuit states that she experienced both physical and verbal sexual harassment from fellow firefighters. In one incident, Boss reported, she was told she only was hired because she is female. Another time, she reported that a co-worker, who is not named, shoved his hand down the back of her pants.
Boss came into conflict with several firefighters throughout her career over an ongoing issue with the women’s bathrooms at the fire stations. She claims she regularly experienced instances of men using the women’s bathroom toilet and shower, in some instances walking in on Boss while she was using the facility.
Complaints about the use of the women’s bathroom to her superiors resulted in resentment and retaliation from other firefighters, Boss alleges.
The petition states that tensions between Boss and her male co-workers increased due to incidents involving then-fire department Capt. Jim Abitz.
In 2018, Abitz resigned from the department for making inappropriate comments to a city intern, who told the Telegraph Herald at the time that she reported Abitz for making comments about her appearance that made her uncomfortable. The TH obtained Abitz’s resignation letter and separation agreement in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Emails between city staff indicate Abitz had the option to resign or be fired.
Boss’s lawsuit states that the intern approached Boss to confide that she was being harassed by Abitz. After being encouraged by Boss to report the incident to Dubuque Human Rights Director Kelly Larson, the intern agreed under the stipulation that Boss would go with her.
After the complaint was reported to City Manager Mike Van Milligen and former city Human Resources Director Randy Peck, Boss reported, she was informed that they refused to accept the complaint if the intern and Boss remained anonymous, so both agreed to let their names be used.
Abitz was placed on paid leave for four months prior to his departure from the fire department. However, before he left, Boss alleges Abitz announced to the fire department staff during a union meeting that Boss was the reason he lost his job.
The incident furthered the rift between Boss and her male co-workers, the petition alleges.
She alleges multiple incidents in which she was passed over for promotion for positions that were instead granted to male counterparts, despite her having more experience. She also alleges that she continues to face hostility from her co-workers over her complaints about the use of the women’s bathrooms and her reporting of Abitz’s behavior.
Throughout her career, Boss also has come into conflict with her superiors over allegations of her violating the city’s employee residency requirements.
Prior to taking the job with the fire department, Boss lived on a farm with her husband in Gratiot, Wis.
When she took the position, Boss purchased a home in Dubuque. Boss reports that she sleeps 10 nights per month at the Dubuque fire station, splitting the rest of her time among her Dubuque home, the Gratiot farm and her parents’ house.
Boss claims she discussed her housing situation with both former Fire Chief Dan Brown and Steines, who told her it fulfilled the city’s requirements.
But over the ensuing years, the fire department periodically would receive anonymous letters accusing Boss of violating the city residency requirement. The first time, Brown allegedly told her she did nothing wrong.
In 2017, now-Fire Chief Steines allegedly, under the orders of Van Milligen, requested Boss submit a log showing all the time she spent in her Dubuque home. Boss declined to take such action.
One week later, Steines sent a letter to Boss claiming her residency was “questionable,” the lawsuit states.
Weeks later, Steines allegedly threatened to suspend Boss for three days without pay if she did not submit the requested log, despite Boss submitting additional evidence of her Dubuque residency, including her voter registration.
Court documents state that Boss did eventually fill out and submit the time log.
Steines declined to comment for this story.
In a response filed with the court, attorney Les Reddick denies the charges brought forward by Boss, though the document does admit to certain claims, such as a light switch having a plate on it depicting a male flasher and that male firefighters did use the women’s bathroom. Reached by the TH, Reddick declined to comment further.
David Albrecht, one of the attorneys representing Boss, said the lawsuit largely speaks for itself.
“It’s important for Jami to stand up for what is right,” he said. “These incidents needed to be brought to light.”
Boss’s suit is the second high-profile one filed by a female city employee in less than two years.
Then-Dubuque Police Department Capt. Abby Simon sued the city in the summer of 2019 on the grounds of gender discrimination, harassment and retaliation. The lawsuit, set for trial in January, alleges a broad issue with sexism and discrimination in the department.