Lawmaker slams firefighters' pregnancy rules

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Local,Betsy Woodruff
D.C. Councilman Phil Mendelson is demanding that the city's fire department change a policy that he says is discriminatory and unfair to pregnant women, leaving them without health care when they need it most -- right before they give birth.

"The department is going in the wrong direction," Mendelson told The Washington Examiner. "They've revised a policy [and caused] discrimination against pregnant employees."

The at-large Democrat said that if the department doesn't "administratively fix it, I will take it to the council ... and I'm sure we'll legislate for them. But I think that's unnecessary."

The firefighters union says the policy presents a pregnant firefighter with two unacceptable options: Go on sick leave and eventually give up her paycheck, or expose her unborn child to occupational hazards and diseases.

Many women choose the latter, said Shalonda Smith, a pregnant D.C. firefighter. She said some women continue working into their sixth month of pregnancy before taking a limited-duty assignment.

Smith, who is due in September and is using "banked" leave time, said she does not know how she is going to afford the pregnancy. Her husband has a job, but her family -- including two stepchildren -- relies on her income.

"What are you going to do?" she said.

The policy applies to employees with temporary disabilities that didn't come from their performance on duty, letting them work for 30 days at a "limited-duty assignment" -- less physically demanding positions like desk jobs.

But acting Fire Chief Kenneth Jackson said there is a limited number of such assignments. After 30 days, employees can use sick leave and vacation time. When that runs out, they can switch to unpaid leave. Their health care coverage stays in place longer, but that also ends eventually before they give birth. It's only restored when they return to work.

Ed Smith, president of the firefighters union, said his group wants women to be able to work on limited-duty assignments for the duration of their pregnancies.

Jackson responded to Mendelson's letter Friday, writing that making an exception for pregnant women would "disparately impact other employees with temporary disabilities" and could lead to claims of discrimination.

He said the department changed its limited-duty policy in January 2010, reducing assignments from 180 days to 30, partly to save money. The department spent approximately $12 million on overtime costs in fiscal 2010.

Fire officials will meet with Mendelson at some point soon, department spokesman Lon Walls said. "We probably need to make some adjustments," he conceded.

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