If I learned anything in the news business it's that history really does repeat itself. Especially with the DC Fire & EMS Department where things seem to happen in threes.
In three different decades, starting in the 70s, the department tried rotating closures to save money. Each time the policy ended when there was outrage about fire deaths near closed companies. Three times, also beginning in the 70s, firefighters prevailed in similar First Amendment lawsuits against the city. And now, for the third time in a decade, the department's policies on pregnant workers is being tested.
We will let the reporter who was given the assignment today at WUSA-TV, Kristin Fisher, deal with that one in the video above and the copy below. Rather than judge the merits of the current issue, which I know little about, let me provide some historical perspective about the other two cases, which I covered when they occurred.
A week before the attacks of September 11th I reported on a pregnancy policy for civilian EMS workers that was nothing short of outrageous. While I can't find the Channel 9 story on the web, I found this summary from Andrew DeMillo in the September 5, 2001 issue of The Washington Post:
D.C. officials say they are reviewing a policy that requires all female applicants who want to be emergency medical workers or firefighters to take pregnancy tests. The review comes as city investigators are trying to determine whether a 21-year-old rookie with the District fire department's Emergency Medical Services was told to have an abortion or lose her job.
Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety, said the city will review its policy after a WUSA-TV (Channel 9) report yesterday that Fire Chief Ronnie Few has been sending letters telling female applicants that they must have pregnancy tests — and that any job offers will be "held in abeyance" if the test is positive.
Two months later, Chief Few answered questions about that policy and other topics in an online discussion with columnist Bob Levey (here).
As you might imagine this policy soon became the subject of a lawsuit. That suit was settled in favor of three female EMS workers. You can read the details of the settlement here.
I don't have the date on the other case, but it was around the same time period. As I recall, Keisha Olsen was a civilian paramedic assigned to ride Engine 28 in the early version of DC's paramedic engine companies. Despite being pregnant, Olsen had hoped to continue riding and doing the job she loved for as long as possible. The department had other ideas and placed her on light duty.
AFGE Local 3721 went to work, claiming Olsen was being discriminated against because of her pregnancy and argued that there was no indication Olsen was incapable of doing her job. This one was settled rather quickly and Paramedic Olsen went back to work until shortly before her child was born.
So that brings us back to round 3 and today's story. This time it is about three female firefighters and the battle is being waged by IAFF Local 36.
It's hard enough to hold down a normal job while you're pregnant. But imagine being a pregnant firefighter running into burning buildings, hauling heavy equipment. Three pregnant D.C. firefighters are now joining forces in hopes of changing what they call an "unfair pregnancy policy."
Female firefighters in the District used to be able to switch to a desk job during their pregnancy. But under a new policy, they're forced to use their own sick leave. It means some female D.C. firefighters have no money coming in months before their due date. They also don't have any maternity leave after they give birth.
"I feel the department is basically telling the women on the job not to get pregnant," said pregnant D.C. firefighter, Sholanda Smith.
"It's almost like you're being punished for starting a family, said another pregnant D.C. firefighter Melissa Davis. "There's a lot of heavy lifting. I have to lift and drag quite a load."
For that reason, Davis' doctor advised she go on a "limited duty" assignment at four months pregnant.
"I was given thirty days of a desk job," said Davis.
Three weeks in, she got a letter from D.C. Fire and EMS which said: "Although you have not recovered from your illness/injury, no employee will be permitted to remain in a limited duty assignment for more than thirty days."
"My initial reaction when they said that my desk job was ending was, they can't do that. That couldn't be legal," said Davis.
Davis needed about six months of sick leave if she wanted to get paid.
"I didn't have enough leave, so I went on leave without pay," said Davis. "It's been very stressful. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know who to call. I'd never heard of this happening before."
It's also happening to two other pregnant D.C. Firefighters, including Smith.
"I don't know how I'm supposed to survive as far as maintaining the household and also preparing for a new baby," said Smith.
Smith, Davis, and the D.C. Firefighters Association are now taking the fight to the D.C. City Council.
"I believe it's not fair and the rest of our membership believes it's not fair," said Ed Smith, President of the Local No. 36 D.C. Fire Fighters Association.
In a letter to the D.C. Council, Acting Fire Chief Kenneth Jackson says the department changed their limited duty policy in January 2010 "to address excessive overtime expenditures and to reduce costs associated with backfilling positions of temporarily disabled employees."
In a statement released Monday, Jackson said: "Our pregnancy policy is in line with federal law and district guidelines."
But D.C. Councilman Phil Mendelson says the fire department is "wrong on the law." For instance, both D.C. Police and Montgomery County Fire allow limited duty work for pregnant employees throughout their pregnancy.
Councilman Mendelson and Councilwoman Cheh are currently in talks with DC Fire and EMS to amend their policy. If that fails, Councilman Mendelson has said he would move on legislation next month.
Also on STATter911 …
- Rockledge, FL’s only woman firefighter says she’s been forced to take maternity leave. Geri Miller wants light duty like those injured off the job. – June 15, 2012
- Facebook problems in the Nation’s Capital. Five DC firefighters taken off the street for comments about police. – May 14, 2013
- Police say OH fire investigator involved in on-duty road rage incident with gun. Columbus Fire gun policies again under scrutiny. – January 11, 2013
- Kanawha County, West Virginia firefighter dies after fall from bridge. Davis Creek volunteer investigating railroad tie fire. – December 4, 2011
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