By Curt Varone
Editor's Note: This article is part of a series in which Curt Varone will address questions on important fire service legal issues. If you would like to submit a question, please email Shannon Pieper at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Earlier this year, a firefighter in Florida made headlines when she battled with her department over her desire for a light-duty assignment during pregnancy. The collective bargaining agreement between Indian River County and the firefighters' union prohibited light or restricted duty for "non-duty related illness, injury, or condition (such as pregnancy), except as required by applicable law". The department eventually shifted course and granted the light-duty assignment, vowing to change the policy.
In another case out of Florida, a fire department's policy prohibited firefighters from being on light duty in their first trimester, regardless of their medical condition and whether a doctor had recommended light duty. Instead, the women had to wait until their second trimester. The policy was found to be discriminatory under Title VII of the Civil rights Act of 1964 because it treats pregnant firefighters differently from their male colleagues. The department entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department, agreeing to change the policy.
So this lead to our question: Do fire departments have to provide light duty for female firefighters who become pregnant?
The answer is a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no. There is no federal law that mandates that pregnant firefighters be provided with light-duty assignments. States are free to legislate such a light-duty requirement for pregnant employees, but generally they do not.
However, here's the rub: Fire departments that provide light-duty assignments cannot deny such assignments to pregnant firefighters. Doing so would likely constitute discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act as well as gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Employers often provide light-duty assignments for personnel who suffer line-of-duty/worker's compensation-type injuries. In fact, many worker's comp insurers offer a reduction in premiums to employers who follow this practice as it has proven to reduce overall comp costs. Once the practice of providing light-duty assignments for worker's comp cases is established, denying light-duty positions to other types of disabilities risks running afoul of discrimination laws. The reality is, if a light-duty assignment would be given to an employee with one type of medical disability, it cannot be denied to a pregnant employee.
Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law Column.