- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2011

When D.C. firefighter Melissa Davis found out she was pregnant with her first child, she expected to spend the last several months of her pregnancy transferred to desk duty.

Instead, because of a recent fire department policy change, the 31-year-old is without a paycheck and relying on her husband’s overtime and her own disability insurance to get by until after her son is born in August.

“Before all this happened, I was saving leave so I could stay home with the baby,” Mrs. Davis said. Now she has burned through all of her accrued leave rather than continue to perform a physically demanding job deep into her pregnancy.

The change in policy went into effect in March and restricts injured or ill firefighters and paramedics from performing limited-duty assignments, or desk jobs, for longer than 30 days, according to the department’s revised order book. But the fire union and five pregnant employees say the policy is applied unfairly to pregnant women.

Under the policy, the women are allowed 30 days of limited duty and are then required to either use sick days or accrued leave.

“It’s making you choose between life outside the fire department and a career,” said Jessica Wooten, a six-year veteran of the fire department who is five months pregnant with her second child.

Several women said their physicians recommended they transfer to desk jobs around the fourth or fifth month of their pregnancies. While some have been able to take leave without pay or accept donated leave from other firefighters, others such as Mrs. Wooten have stayed on the job.

“It’s just crazy the positions they are putting people in,” Mrs. Davis said.

Under the previous policy, there was a 180-day cap on the amount of time pregnant, ill or injured employees were allowed to work limited-duty assignments, said Edward C. Smith, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association.

The union has asked the D.C. Council to intervene on firefighters’ behalf in order to reverse the policy. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, has indicated that he will introduce legislation July 12 to change the policy if the department does not reverse it.

“Removing an expectant mother’s source of income, within months of childbirth and with potential implications for her healthcare coverage, is inconscionable,” Mr. Mendelson wrote in a letter to fire officials asking for a policy reversal.

The department responded that the change, which affects all employees with temporary disabilities, was needed to reduce overtime costs, which accumulate when positions need to be backfilled because of an employee’s leave. In fiscal 2010, the department spent approximately $12 million on overtime.

“The request to carve out a blanket exception to the limited duty policy would disparately impact other employees with temporary disabilities and may well open up the department to claims of discrimination,” Assistant Fire Chief Kenneth Jackson wrote in a reply to Mr. Mendelson’s letter.

The fire department already has a poor track record with pregnant employees.

In 2001, an EMS supervisor told a class of medical technician trainees that they could lose their jobs if they became pregnant within their first year of employment. Three female trainees terminated their pregnancies based on the advice. The supervisor resigned in 2003 after the scandal was brought to light.