Pregnant Officer Policies

By Moore, Carole | Law & Order, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Pregnant Officer Policies


Moore, Carole, Law & Order


Women make up about 12% of sworn law enforcement officers nationwide. But even though most departments actively recruit women for their ranks, a large number of qualified female officers leave law enforcement after becoming pregnant or giving birth. Not all of them are simply electing to stay at home with their newborns: many feel they are not welcomed in the profession once they become pregnant.

Adrienne Burfield worked as a deputy for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department (SDCSD) for nine years, specializing in traffic investigations and safety. In 1987, she informed her supervisors she was pregnant. They immediately sent her to the Communications Division and put to work in a capacity Burfield referred to as a "dispatcher's helper."

This is no longer the case. Although Burfield's transfer was standard at the time, SDCSD deputies are now able to choose whether or not to take a light (sometimes called limited duty) assignment, or stay right where they are, according to departmental spokesman Sgt. Billie Bustmante. Bustamante ensures newly promoted supervisors know and adhere to departmental policies. She said an officer could work at her normal duties until such time as the officer and her physician determine she should go on light duty. The SDCSD's policies and procedures manual defines light duty as follows: Limited Duty is defined as any employee with a medical restriction(s) which prevents them from performing one or more of the Essential Job Functions of their class.

Bustamante said there's no specific time when a female officer usually elects to come in off the streets, but most choose to go on light duty at around the end of their first trimester.

Recruiting and Retention

Chief Vicky M. Pelzer of the University of Washington Police Department agrees with the SDCSD's approach.

Pelzer, also the president of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE), doesn't believe it's the department's duty to dictate whether an officer can or will perform full duties while pregnant.

Pelzer also pointed out this issue directly affects both the recruiting and retention of female officers. She notes that women, like their male counterparts, want to work where they're welcome. Singling out women and making them feel as though they're burdens only sends a strong, negative message to both female officers and future candidates.

But it's not simply the negative message that should concern law enforcement executives. It's the issue of pregnancy discrimination itself- an act that could land the department in a lawsuit.

Professor Sam Marcosson of the Brandeis School of Law, University of Louisville, KY, served as a litigator in the Appellate Division of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Marcosson, an expert in the area of employment discrimination law, said mishandling of pregnancy issues could lead to possible liability.

According to Marcosson, pregnancy is covered primarily by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The PDA states explicitly that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy constitutes a type of sex discrimination.

Under the provisions of the PDA, an employer isn't required to provide light duty assignments, leave time or even health insurance coverage to pregnant employees. But, if any of those benefits accrue to officers for other conditions, such as a temporary back injury or heart attack, then the agency cannot deny such benefits to pregnant officers. Policies and benefits must be equitable.

If a male or female officer suffers a non-service related temporary disability, such as an injury or illness, and is allowed to go on light or limited duty, then the department must also provide the same benefit to a pregnant officer. Conversely, a department possessing no light duty assignments need not provide one for pregnant officers.

But, Marcosson cautioned, these provisions don't take into account the effect of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which doesn't apply to light duty assignments, but does require that employers allow up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for certain purposes, including pregnancy and childbirth. …

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