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Bridgeport Firefighter Claims Pregnancy Discrimination

A pregnant Bridgeport, Connecticut firefighter whose light duty assignment reached the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement has been placed on unpaid and unrequested maternity leave. Firefighter Regina Scates and her attorney, former mayor Thomas Bucci, are threatening suit under federal and state law for pregnancy discrimination.

According to Bucci: "The department is violating now long-established, anti pregnancy-discrimination laws on both the federal and state levels by placing Firefighter Scates on unpaid leave while she is still able to work in a light-duty capacity… Treating pregnancy differently than any other disability is strictly prohibited under the federal Civil Rights Act and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act."

Of course that argument fails if all disabilities are treated the exact same way. According to CTPost.com, the firefighters CBA limits light duty assignments to 90 days. Scates, who found out she was pregnant in May, went on light duty when she began experiencing nausea, dizziness, dehydration and fatigue.

Compounding the problem is Scates is down to 11 days of accumulated leave, and she is not due until December. The department is reportedly considering its options.

President of the Firebirds Society, Joel Christy, was quoted in CTPost.com as saying: "Here's a woman who risked her life for the city and who is now six months pregnant and having complications. For them to tell her on her 90th day of light duty that she has to go home and is not going to be paid for four months is outrageous. They're adding more stress to an already complicated pregnancy. Yet they don't seem to care."

More on the story.

Comments - Add Yours

  • Mike Love

    It would seem the department has no choice but to follow the contract they are bound to. If there is a contract that is more restrictive then the law – which one wins? Seems there had to be a suffer and grieve condition (harm to the employee) before the more restrictive language of the CBA could be challenged as not consistent with law? Now they have that.

  • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

    Mike

    There is nothing in the law that requires an employer to give an employee paid maternity leave. All the law requires is that you treat the employee the same as any other employee with a medical condition.

    In her case she will likely argue the 90 day limitation on light duty is illegal in and of itself, or that as applied to her it is being applied in a discriminatory manner – based on race, gender, pregnancy status, or the fact that she previously filed sexual harassment complaints against superior officers. Obviously she is well positioned to make these arguments.

  • Andrew

    It seems insane that any community would make the investment required in bringing a FF on board, then do something silly like this. (And it's not just FDs that do this – Detroit PD was in the news a few years back for the same thing). Yes, municipal budgets are tight, but find a way to the right thing by her, and I suspect the FFs and the union would find a way to do the right thing by the city.

    Or maybe not… we are, after all, talking about Bridgeport, the city whose last honest mayor, P.T. Barnum, lived in Fairfield while he was in office.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Andrew

      I believe the concern is – if you offer unlimited light duty, then anyone who cannot do full duty for virtually any reason is able to take advantage of it…

      What seems on one level to be a reasonable benefit becomes an entitlement and will become a major drain on personnel/costs in the long run.

      With no limits on light duty a person could be hired, work a brief period and then spend the rest of their career on light duty – taking a position that could be filled by a new employee. Someone else who has another medical condition… or perhaps another qualifying basis (religion for example – and wants to have a beard – so asks to be accomodated with a light duty position) or age, etc. etc. etc. says "me too".

      Then you have the potential for applicants who cannot perform the essential functions of the full duty position – but claim they can do the light duty posistion – and demand to be allowed to apply for that…

      It can become a nightmare… Some departments place time limits on light duty (eg 90 days), some departments place limits on time and number of employees (eg. 90 days and no more than 10 employees at a time) to help manage the problem.

      At the end of the day it is about how to manage the problem of too many employees on light duty and not enough able to work.

       

      • Andrew

        Chief, I wasn't thinking in terms of unlimited light duty, I was thinking about the term of the pregnancy, less whatever time off was required for medical reasons.

        In the Detroit case, for instance, female officers were forced to take leave (I'm not positive, but I believe in Detroit it was paid leave) because they could not fulfill the duties of police patrol officers. Yet they could easily have served in admin positions, or community relations,or recruiting, or conducting follow-up investigations, thus enabling the city to get some sort of return on the investment made by paying the officers' salary.

        It would seem that the same might apply in the fire service: even if a pregnant female is temporarily incapable of fulfilling the duties of a firefighter, there are likely other services she could render. She could, for instance, do recruiting in high schools or colleges, or safety education in elelmentary schools (and I bet the kids and teachers would love to see a "girl fireman").

        By the way, I am NOT saying that this should automatically apply in this particular case, as the city limits light duty to 90 days. Rather, I was trying to say that agencies should not assume that all pregnant employees should be placed on "involuntary, unrequested" maternity leave, unless reasonable alternatives have been discussed and eliminated.

        Without knowing all the ins and outs of the specific CBA, I would have to agree with Mr Love. But it appears that other agencies do not have similar issues, so it might be worthwhile finding out how others do it.

         

        • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

          Andrew

          I think we have to distinguish between two things: whether an employer can grant employees certain benefits (paid pregnancy leave) and whether an employer has a legal obligation to grant employees certain benefits.

          There is no legal obligation to provide such a benefit. Personally I think it is quite commendable for an employer to offer such benefits.

          However, any benefit comes at a cost to someone… the reason we are in the current ecomomic mess we are in is because folks believe "they"… the government… can/should bail out everyone -  from those who cannot work, cannot stay employed, or cannot pay their bills, to those gigantic banks, corporations and investment firms that cannot manage to stay profitable.

          While I think it is commendable to do what you suggest – it has the very real potential to bankrupt an employer… oh… wait… where did you say they did that?

          Anyway… once an employer provides long term light duty assignments for pregnant employees, the employer cannot deny them to other employees with other protected classifications (medical, disability, religious, age, etc.). It opens Pandora's Box.

          Police departments may be better able to handle large numbers of light duty officers. Some fire departments can as well. However, many cannot. The cost for fire departments is not simply the cost of the pregnant firefighter's salary and benefits. That firefighter's assignment on an engine, ladder or rescue must be covered by another firefighter working overtime. The cost is thus 2 1/2 times the employees salary (not including benefits). In a small department this can quickly cause a major financial crisis.

          If an employer chooses to provide such a benefit to employees – that is awesome and I am sure they will attract a better caliber of employee because of the benefits they offer. However, it is not required by law.

  • Vince

    This is typical northeastern old school tomfoolery at work.  Why would you allow this in a union contract anyway? The city and the department should run this program.  The unions interest is not on protecting the city legal exposure. They could care less.   Most progressive agencies have a light duty policy that extends no longer than a year, with interval medical review checks to ensure medical inprovement is being achieved.  If after that extended time, a person does not show sufficient improvement, they can be medically seperated.  I think a "pregnancy disability" could be  resolved in a year.  It seems "the dumb are leading the blind." In Bridgeport……..