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Lawsuit against Bellevue seeks equal pay for equal work
Lawsuit against Bellevue seeks equal pay for equal work
"If this lawsuit is successful and goes to trial, that could change things for a lot of people," said veteran firefighter Larry deGroen.

by Robert Raketty - SGN Staff Writer

Larry deGroen, a firefighter and paramedic for the City of Bellevue, has risked physical and emotional injury during the last 12 years he has served the city's resident. Yet, he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I love what I do. I have a great job. I work with some wonderful people," he told the Seattle Gay News on Wednesday.

But one phone call a year and half ago to request bereavement leave after the death of his partner's father would later cause him to question how much the City of Bellevue appreciated his exemplary service.

"When I called in to ask for funeral leave, I wasn't even told that I was not granted funeral leave," said deGroen.

It wasn't until he returned from the funeral in Detroit that he noticed what he thought to be a clerical error. The city had recorded the absence as "emergency leave," which required that he work overtime, unpaid, to make up for the one day of work he had missed.

"When it came down to being denied bereavement leave to attend [my partner's] father's funeral, it kind of hit home to me that this was very unjust, not right, unfair and hurtful. Hurtful at a very difficult time," he said.

He took his protest up the chain of command, but both the deputy fire chief and fire chief denied his request to forgive the absence. Later, he turned to the city manager.

"Both of them told me that [my request] was denied. So, I went to the city manager and said 'Isn't there something that the city can do to change this; maybe give me administrative leave? If for no other reason than to make me feel like I'm a person and not just a body here filling this position.' They consciously refused to do anything," he said. "Every time that I got backed into a corner, I just said, 'You know, this isn't right. So, really, what we should be asking for is domestic partner benefits.' From that point, it just slowly got bigger and bigger."

deGroen said he prepared a "pretty extensive package" of information, which included a letter of support for domestic partner benefits from the President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1604. He met with a couple city of council members, the deputy mayor and the mayor about the need for domestic partner benefits. However, in each case, they failed to take action. In recent negotiations between the fireman's union and the City of Bellevue, the city again refused to extend benefits to domestic partners.

"It was never something that I went out of my way to say, 'I want to make this big change.' It was something that I was pushed into," he said. "I never really wanted to be the spokesperson for Gay firefighters and Lesbian firefighters, but I was put in that position because I was forced to be there."

On Tuesday, deGroen joined fellow veteran firefighter Faun Patzer and 9-1-1 dispatcher George Einsetler in filing suit against the City of Bellevue for denying equal compensation to its Lesbian and Gay employees. All are long time employees of the city and has been with their partners for several years.

deGroen and his partner, Thomas Dixon, have been together for 16 years. Patzer, who has been a Bellevue firefighter for 17 years, has shared her life with her partner, Carrie Wurzburg, for four years. Einsetler, a 9-1-1 dispatcher for 13 years, has been in a committed three year relationship with Cameron Murdock.

"If this lawsuit is successful and goes to trial, that could change things for a lot of people," said deGroen. "It is sad to think that this came about because of one injustice that happened to me. But, this happens to a lot of different people all over the state."

Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Tara Borelli, one of three attorney's representing the plaintiffs, agreed that the case may have far reaching ramifications. "The request the plaintiffs has made have statewide implications because, of course, there is one Washington constitution and it has to mean the same thing throughout the state," she said. "So, a ruling that the constitution requires providing benefits on equal terms to these public employees would apply to all public employees in Washington."

The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, does not seek damages. Instead, the plaintiffs are asking the court to issue a finding that the constitution requires that they be treated equally and that they be provided the same benefits that the city extends to their married heterosexual colleagues.

"A lot of people don't see employment benefits as an issue of workplace discrimination. But employment benefits are an incredibly important part of employee compensation," said Borelli. "These benefits are every bit as important to these Gay and Lesbian employees as they are to every other worker. The plaintiffs have compelling needs to obtain these benefits. We really believe that this constitutional argument will carry the day."

The lawsuit names Bellevue City Manager Steve Sarkozy, Deputy Mayor John Chelminiak and Mayor Grant Degginger, who are being sued in their official capacity.

According to the complaint, numerous municipalities in Washington, including Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver, Olympia and Kirkland, offer domestic partner benefits and at a comparatively minimal expense. A Seattle ordinance (No. 119748) states that "discrimination in the provision of employee benefits between employees with domestic partners and employees with spouses results in unequal pay for equal work."

"Employees from the City of Bellevue are leaving to go to the City of Seattle because Seattle does offer domestic partner benefits. For a lot of people, that is a big issue," added deGroen.

In addition to Borelli, Lambda Legal Senior Council Jennifer C. Pizer is also providing counsel in deGroen et al v. City of Bellevue et al. Derek A. Newman of Newman & Newman, Attorneys at Law, LLP in Seattle is co-counsel on the case.

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