- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pregnant members of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services can now perform light duty for up to 90 days, remedying a 30-day policy that raised ire in the ranks in recent weeks, Chief Kenneth Ellerbe said Thursday.

The new policy will apply to all 2,200 members of the department so there is no perception of favoritism over those who are sick or injured. Members can apply for additional leave, for a maximum of 180 days, if they have a valid reason.

“We don’t discriminate,” the chief said. “We try to take everybody’s condition and circumstances into account.”

Considerations for additional light duty include pregnancy, the severity of a person’s injury or illness and their prognosis for returning to duty, the chief said. The new policy will be circulated in a special order and should be effective by the end of the week.

Under the previous policy, employees were allowed 30 days on a light-duty assignment, or desk work, and were required to either use sick days or accrued leave for additional time away from their regular job assignment. Some women affected by the policy said doctors ordered them to take light-duty assignments during their fourth or fifth months of pregnancy.

The 30-day policy was introduced under the previous administration in November and “left on the table” this year. Chief Ellerbe looked at it and implemented it in March. But pregnant firefighters publicly protested the policy last month, saying it makes female employees unfairly chose between family life and a career in the department.

“We made the change, first of all, to accommodate women who are pregnant,” Chief Ellerbe said. “I must say as much as we looked at the policy, initially, that may have been one of the things that escaped our perspective.”

Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, commended the chief’s decision, but added, “I would still like to see a policy more specifically tailored to pregnancy. ‘Pregnancy’ should not be treated identically to ‘disability.’ “

Mr. Mendelson is chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, which oversees the fire department. He had expressed concern about the 30-day rule and said he will work with Chief Ellerbe on a pregnancy-specific policy, yet stopped short of saying he plans to force the measure through legislation.

The chief said pregnant women nearing the end of their 30 days would be eligible for the additional 60 days.

However, “this will not be a retroactive policy,” Chief Ellerbe said, although pregnant women who maxed out on their 30 days and started sick-leave can request the additional light-duty days if there are enough slots available.

The D.C. Firefighters Association said it appreciates the chief’s decision, but 90 days may be insufficient in some cases.

“The change in policy will still force our pregnant female members to exhaust their sick leave and forgo a paycheck in the interest of their unborn children,” the union said.

Chief Ellerbe said the policy change should alleviate many pressures felt by pregnant members and others who need a period of light duty, but he must consider the department’s overtime concerns and “strike a decent balance” between labor management, department expenses and employees’ needs.

Chief Ellerbe said he notified Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Paul Quander, deputy mayor for public safety, of the policy change ahead of the announcement at fire department headquarters on Vermont Avenue in Northwest.

Limited duty typically consists of administrative tasks and no physical work beyond the member’s abilities. Only a handful of members are pregnant at any given time, including a half-dozen or so right now, the chief said.

The chief said the department will not retaliate against any members who request light duty, or those who have spoken out about the issue in recent weeks.

“If we did something like that it would be readily obvious to the naked eye,” he said. “We won’t treat people that way.”

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