Pregnant D.C. Firefighters Put Out by New Unpaid Leave Policy

By Tom Sherwood
|  Monday, Jun 20, 2011  |  Updated 7:51 PM EDT
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A new policy forces pregnant D.C. firefighters onto unpaid leave after 30 days of light duty.

Tom Sherwood

A new policy forces pregnant D.C. firefighters onto unpaid leave after 30 days of light duty.

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Fighting fire is a tough job, and only in recent decades have women fully joined in by driving trucks, rushing into burning buildings and saving panicked citizens -- all the things male firefighters do.

“We went through all the training just like the guys,” said four-year firefighter Melissa Davis.

D.C. firefighter Shalonda Smith agreed, saying the women firefighters can do everything a man does -- until they get pregnant.

And that’s the problem for Davis and Smith. Both are pregnant with their first child and facing a tough, new policy that forces them onto unpaid leave right when they need their paychecks the most.

In the past, the fire department like other agencies, including the police, would place pregnant workers on desk duty or other lighter assignments until they gave birth or no longer can work.

But in a cost-cutting move by D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbee, the department is enforcing a strict policy that allows the women to have light duty for a maximum of 30 days.  The pregnant workers then have to shift to sick leave or annual leave, neither of which covers the full time off.  That means their paychecks are cut off.

“It’s been very stressful and they sprung it on us,” said Davis, who’s now on leave without pay.

Smith, who has five family members currently serving as firefighters, said the new policy is cutting income at the very time families need it to prepare for the new baby and pay the routine household expenses.

“It’s causing problems,” she said.

In a letter to the D.C. Council Public Safety Committee, the fire department said the restricted jobs are an effort to “address excessive overtime” and to “reduce costs associated with backfilling positions of temporarily disabled employees.”

But the firefighters’ union Local 36 pointed out that no other department has such a tough policy, including the police department.

“It needs to be changed back,” said union president Ed Smith.

The strict policy has captured the attention of at-large Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Public Safety Committee that oversees the police and fire departments.

“The current policy is wrong. The current policy needs to be reversed,” Mendelson said.

He’s talking with the fire department and has asked D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan to review the policy for discrimination implications. If the fire department doesn’t reverse the policy, Mendelson will ask the D.C. Council to get involved when it meets again on July 12.

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