New Laws Protect Obese Firefighters, Breast-Feeding Moms

CHICAGO – Do you know what to do if one of your firefighters becomes so obese he can no longer drive a fire truck? How do you handle a firefighter who has become a new mother and wants to breast feed her child at the fire station?

Those were just a couple of the thorny issues dealt with at a class held by John Rukavina, a retired fire chief and public safety director from North Carolina who also has a lawyer and director of Public Fire Safety Services, a consulting practice. His class was titled “Firehouse Law Update 2013” and it focused on the latest laws cranked out by the American legal system and how they affect firefighters.

Rukavina was a presenter at the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Fire Rescue International, the organization’s annual conference and expo held this year in Chicago.

When it comes to obesity, Rukavina said the condition is considered a disease and as such some Americans with Disabilities laws apply. It does not mean, however, that the fire department has to keep the employee who can no longer do his job.

“You must make reasonable accommodations for the employee to do his job,” Rukavina said. In this particular case, there is no expectation that the department will purchase a special apparatus with a custom, bigger cab, to accommodate the obese firefighter.

In the case of the mom who wants to breast-feed her newborn, the new law says a fire department must make a clean and comfortable space available, that’s not the women’s bathroom, for breast-feeding moms to express milk, Rukavina said.

“You know what I’d do if I were the captain, I’d give her my office,” he said. “The likelihood that someone would come busting into my office are pretty slim.” He said because the request can be made with reasonable accommodations, and will not affect the employee’s work, the request must be honored.

Rukavina said in most cases the best thing for fire officers to do is to leave medical and educational issues to the experts.

For instance, when a pregnant woman wants to continue her job, but the department’s policy mandates leave, it’s far better for there to be a discussion with the employee and a request that she check with a doctor with whom she will make a decision on whether she can do her job.

“If she talks to her doctor and comes back and said she’s good to go, I’m good with that,” Rukavina said. “That’s all I need.”

“When it comes to medical and educational issues, it’s best to stay out of those thickets,” Rukavina said. “You are not a doctor. You are not an educational expert, so just stay away from those areas.”

For the issue of pregnancy, a best practice is for departments to handle the case the same way they would any other “temporary disability,” he said.

“Don’t do a dumb thing and make up a rule for one that’s different from rule for everyone else,” Rukavina said.

Sexual harassment has been in the news lately and Rukavina said fire departments are not immune from the issue.

He said departments can be liable for any claims of sexual harassment if a supervisor, captain or higher, knows about it and the agency doesn’t do anything about it.

“The issue of harassment gets bigger every year,” Rukavina said, noting that departments can protect themselves by developing policies.

“The system for answering complaints has to be real and something has to happen,” Rukavina said. “Departments that fail to act can be held liable for harassment.” He added that too many departments ignore harassment complaints hoping they’ll go away.

Offering some advice when it comes to criminal background checks, Rukavina offered a caution regarding blanket policies that disqualify felons from serving as firefighters.

New law suggests that disqualifying people for felony charges can constitute an unfair labor practice complaint, Rukavina said no department should have a policy barring felons from employment. Rather, there should be a discussion with the candidate about his or her criminal background.

“Is there any reason for someone convicted of a tax felony 20 years ago from being a firefighter,” Rukavina questioned. “Probably not.”

However, if that felony conviction was for child molestation, there’s a huge reason why a person should not be allowed to serve as a firefighter and an EMS provider because of the access they would have to children, he said.

The same is true for someone convicted of a property crime like grand larceny or theft, he said.

“The community has a reasonable expectation that a firefighter won’t go into my house and steal my [stuff],” Rukavina said.

Because firefighters are allowed to go into people homes, unlike a sanitation worker or a road crew employee, there should be a rule that disqualifies the candidate from employment as a firefighter, Rukavina said.

When it comes to a conviction of driving under the influence, Rukavina said, as a fire chief, he would consider the age of the conviction and whether there was any other repeat offenses. If the conviction was six or more years ago, Rukavina said, and there wasn’t even a “whiff” of a problem since, he would consider the candidate for employment, all else being equal.

In his presentation, Rukavina also touched on the issue of social media and testing for legal drugs.

In the case of firefighters taking photos of accident victims, the best way to avoid any problems is to make sure they’re just not taken, Rukavina said.

And when it comes to drugs, departments can’t test for legal drugs, at all, he said. The best practice is to have the firefighter tell the employer about the medication, have a discussion about how it might affect job performance and have a medical professional sign off on whether the firefighter is fit for duty, or needs light duty or leave while on the medication.

Offering some general advice, Rukavina said whenever there’s a question about a legal subject, getting some legal advice is probably the best practice.

The municipal agency is always going to be the one named in any litigation because individuals typically don’t have enough assets to go after, Rukavina said.

“Towns and cities can tax as much as they want to pay for legal stupidity,” Rukavina said.