The federal government has put its weight behind a discrimination lawsuit filed by female jail guards who said they are effectively being demoted because county officials don't want them watching over male inmates while showering or being strip searched.
The 21 guards at the Summit County jail said a personnel policy effectively bars them from most jobs overseeing male inmates.
Their lawsuit was filed last year in U.S. District Court. Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, told Judge Sara Lioi last week that the case was a matter of important public interest and asked for permission to back the guards.
There was no immediate ruling from the judge, whose Aug. 5, 2013, trial date provides plenty of time for negotiations to settle the matter. There have already been on-and-off settlement talks.
Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said her office, which represents the sheriff's department, is "trying to work out a resolution that is beneficial to all of the parties." She didn't comment further.
The women claim the personnel policy limits job options because they are mostly assigned to overseeing female inmates. Eighty-two percent of inmates and 80 percent of deputies are male.
The jail said in a court filing that female guards with seniority were bidding on jobs in which they would jeopardize the privacy of inmates being strip-searched or in the showers.
"The three work shifts at the jail need to have a proper number of deputies assigned by gender in order (to) conduct strip searches, showers and not violate the inmates right to privacy," jail commander Gary James said in an affidavit in response to the lawsuit.
James said only 16 of the guards who filed the suit were affected by the staffing policy and none would have their salary, benefits, job title or promotion chances affected.
One guard, however, said in an affidavit that the policy had cost her a shift assignment she had since 2005. Jacquetta Hawkins called the move "a step backward in my career."
The lawsuit seeks an end to the alleged discriminatory job assignments and monetary damages.
Perez said the federal intervention was meant to signal its commitment "to vigorously enforcing the right of employees to be free from sex discrimination in the work place."
Bruce Elfvin, an attorney representing the guards, said, "I think this is the first time I've seen in many, many years that somebody decided to have an entire segregation of their jobs."