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I t was a discussion that took place many years ago, in a fire station, over dinner.
“Hey, Chief, my wife is pregnant. Can I go on light duty?” the firefighter asked me in a baiting sort of way, with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“Will you knock it off?” was my reply.
“No, seriously, if the city lets Tonya go on light duty because she is pregnant, then why can’t I?” Everyone in the room was now silent, following our conversation intently.
“Maybe because you’re not pregnant?” was my reply, desperately hoping some laughter from others in the room would cause the topic to be changed.
“That’s not fair. It’s discrimination,” he replied. I asked, “Who are you upset with over this, the city or Tonya?”
Pausing for a moment with a perplexed look, he said, “Both, I guess. Chief, not for nothing, but they can’t have their cake and eat it too.”
Seeing an opportunity to change the subject, I jumped on it. “Awesome, we’re having cake? I love cake. What kind of cake are we having?” and with that the conversation moved on to a less controversial topic.
Two cases in the headlines
We all know them, the firefighters who just can’t seem to resist an opportunity to stir the pot. We love them and we hate them. From a personal perspective, I have always valued the pot-stirrers because they force me to look deeply into the hard questions I might otherwise choose to ignore. Two headline-making cases in recent months reminded me of that conversation, and once again brought the issue of pregnancy discrimination in the fire service squarely into focus.
The first case involves a firefighter who sued because she was denied a light-duty assignment to accommodate her pregnancy. The second was the settlement of a suit brought on behalf of female firefighters who were refused light-duty assignments during their first trimester of pregnancy, and then forced to leave active duty for the remainder of their pregnancy.
Karen McQuistion is a firefighter in Clinton, IA, who became pregnant in the spring of 2011. She promptly notified Fire Chief Mark Regenwether and requested a transfer to a light-duty position. The request was denied due to the financial condition of the city. McQuistion continued to work on the line until Sept. 29, 2011, when her doctor advised her to take leave.
In October 2011, McQuistion filed discrimination charges against the city with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, and received a right-to-sue letter. In March 2012, she filed suit in state court alleging:
1. Gender and pregnancy discrimination under Iowa law.
2. A violation of the Iowa state constitution’s equal-protection clause.
3. A violation of Iowa’s due-process clause.
In what was no doubt a strategic move to deliberately keep the case out of federal court, the complaint did not allege gender discrimination under federal law, a violation of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, nor violations of McQuistion’s U.S. Constitutional rights.
McQuistion’s suit alleges that Clinton police officers receive light-duty accommodations for pregnancies and that the fire department allows firefighters who are injured on the job to perform light duty, but wrongfully denies an accommodation to pregnant firefighters. The suit names the City of Clinton, City Attorney Jeffrey Farwell, City Administrator Jeffrey Horne and Regenwether, who recently retired. It seeks compensatory damages to cover McQuistion’s lost wages, plus punitive damages “in an amount sufficient to punish the defendants and deter the defendants and others from the same or similar wrongful conduct.”
The second case in the headlines is the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice against the town of Davie, FL, over the fire department’s treatment of pregnant employees. According to the suit, the department prohibited pregnant employees from being placed on light duty until they reached their second trimester, irrespective of their ability to perform their jobs or their doctors’ orders. In addition, the department required pregnant employees to leave active-duty positions upon the start of the second trimester. Both of these requirements are clear violations of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act.