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Jurors hear from firefighter who filed sex discrimination case

TAMPA — The firefighter suing the City of Tampa for discrimination took the stand for the first time Tuesday, telling the court room how other firefighters slammed the door in her face, refused to let her pump breast milk and propositioned her for sex.

Tanja Vidovic told a judge and seven jurors at a discrimination trial in U.S. District Court that she did not want to file formal complaints because she "didn't want to be seen as a complainer." She said she was afraid of retaliation if she did speak up. Several of the people who harassed her, she said, were the people to whom she was supposed to report such activity.

"These were my captains and my chiefs and my lieutenants who were okaying this treatment," she said. "I didn't see it going anywhere."

Vidovic's attorney, Wendolyn Busch, questioned her on a litany of experiences during her seven years at Tampa Fire Rescue, including firefighters at her first station excluding her from dinners, supervisors making physical fitness tests more difficult for her than for male colleagues, and a captain issuing extra duties and responsibilities to her after she complained that he sexually harassed her.

Vidovic is also suing the City of Tampa on a charge of discrimination based on pregnancy. She said during her first pregnancy, she was called to the personnel captain's office at the main fire station downtown where the top brass worked and told she would be put on light duty — a 40-hour work week filled with non-hazardous tasks, as opposed to the typical shift of 24 hours on, 48 hours off.

"They were laughing about it and said none of this would have happened if I kept my knees closed," Vidovic said.

When she returned to her job after taking pregnancy leave, she said her captain and other firefighters made it clear they weren't comfortable with her pumping breast milk while at the station. The told her to pump in the hazardous decontamination room, where they wash off blood, feces, urine, vomit and other fluids.

She said she was instructed to tell her captain if she needed to pump, but he prevented her from doing so on at least one occasion, instead ordering her to do reports or run errands from North Tampa to South Tampa.

"He didn't allow me to do it," she said. "It was rather embarrassing and painful. I leaked all over myself and he wouldn't let me go change or pump."

Vidovic said she also had problems with a captain at another station who made sexual comments and told her during a training run that no one would notice if they disappeared in the woods for 20 minutes. When she told him to knock it off, she said he started treating her differently, assigning her extra duties at the station and ignoring her.

Things became so strained between Vidovic and the captain that a meeting was held with the district chief.

"He said he was going to give me a bad performance evaluation and was going to call the mayor and try to get me fired," Vidovic said.

Vidovic said the entire fire department learned about her harassment complaint against the captain and some of them tried to get her kicked out of the union. She was eventually transferred to another station.

Vidovic said she was able to complete the required tasks to make her eligible for a promotion to driver engineer and got along well with her new colleagues, including the captain who put a handwritten note in her file.

"Tanja was never less than a model employee," Captain Karl Wolfe wrote. "She has a reputation of being difficult to work with. I found the opposite."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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