The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department in recent years has developed a bit of an overtime problem. And part of the solution has created an entirely different problem: angry, pregnant firefighters.
The root of the problem is that too many firefighters haven’t been on full-duty status, so their colleagues have been collecting time-and-a-half to fill in, costing the city about $6 million last year. To help fix the problem, the department last year cracked down on the amount of time firefighters can remain on limited-duty status — working at the training academy or in the fire prevention bureau, for instance. But the crackdown has created big problems for female firefighters, including five who are now pregnant.
Previously, any firefighter with a non-duty-related disability — that includes pregnancy — could work a limited-duty job for 180 days. Starting last year, however, that period was reduced to 30 days. After that, a firefighter who is unable to return to full duty can take sick leave and then, when that is exhausted, go on unpaid leave.
For a pregnant woman, the shorter limited-duty period has led to tough choices. When firefighter Jessica Wooten, 27, had her first child, under the old policy, she worked her full-duty assignment until six months into her child’s term then spent the remainder of her pregnancy in a limited-duty job. Now Wooten’s pregnant again, and under the new policy, she has to account for the fact that she can’t hold a limited-duty job nearly as long.
Wooten, who is five months pregnant, says she has concerns about her current pregnancy and would have liked to have come off full duty a month ago. But with a month of limited duty and a small amount of sick leave, she said, she couldn’t afford to do it.
”Because of the limitations, I can t come off [full duty] like I wanted to,” she said Monday. “I’m sticking it out till I can’t take it no more, until my doctor tells me I can’t do it anymore.”
Another pregnant firefighter, Shalonda Smith, 23, has already burned through her sick leave and is now relying on leave hours donated from her fellow firefighters. Her due date is in early September. Melissa Davis, 31, is in a slightly better situation; she had short-term disability insurance, so she went on unpaid leave and is collecting most of her usual paycheck while she awaits her August due date. But a partial payday “still puts a strain on us,” she said.
Smith, with the help of the D.C. firefighters’ union, appealed to Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe in late May about her situation, but she has not heard back. “It’s like we’re getting no response,” she said.
But FEMS says that is simply cannot treat pregnant women differently from other firefighters sidelined due to conditions not caused in the line of duty. As far as the department in concerned, pregnancy is “in the same category with hypertension, diabetes, and cancer,” said spokesman Lon Walls.
”We can’t make exceptions,” Walls said. “We have to adhere to the law until it’s changed by some other body.”
That body, of course, would be the D.C. Council, which could specificially carve out a pregnancy exception. But the member who oversees FEMS said Monday that the agency’s position is “boneheaded.”
Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said that the department is perfectly within its rights and abilities to carve out an pregnancy exception by itself. He notes that police department has had no qualms about establishing a separate policy for pregnant officers.
”They completely have a choice,” Mendelson said of FEMS, adding that he’ll introduce legislation to fix the problem if he needs to, “but I want them to fix this administratively. ... It’s common sense that you don’t force pregnant people to take leave.”