Pregnant women are among the people protected by state and federal anti-discrimination laws, and one of the key rules says employers must make a reasonable effort to find suitable work for women whose pregnancy keeps them from their normal line of duty.
A case involving the Wallingford Police Department reached a settlement Friday, and it highlights that rule — specifically, what exactly is a reasonable effort? Officer Annie Balcastro charged that the police chief and the town gave her no choice but to take an unpaid leave in January of 2012, after she became pregnant and was unable to work on regular patrol.
The ACLU of Connecticut, which was part of the case on behalf of Annie Balcastro, says the case is a rare reminder that employers — public sector or private — must heed the law. Rare, because there are not a lot of cases in which that particular rule is at issue.
Lawyers for Wallingford say the case illustrates no such thing, because they followed the rule — but settled for $20,000 to avert costly litigation.
Either way, the case, which was launched as a complaint to the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, is a good window into the law. Balcastro sought work that would accommodate her inability to, for example, apprehend and handcuff a suspect. Police Chief Douglas Dortenzio, however, runs a department that has no so-called light-duty work, as a matter of policy. So he rejected options that included desk work and community policing assignments that many departments have.
“We have a policy that if you can’t perform the essential aspects of the job, there is no job for you in law enforcement,” said attorney Michael Rose of Rose Kallor LLP in Hartford, who represented the town. “We can’t make exceptions…we’re not going to go down that slippery slope, and I can tell you there are dozens of departments in this state who do that and they have officers who are making six figures and couldn’t make an arrest if their lives depended on it.”
That’s not okay when it comes to discrimination issues, said Sandra Staub, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Connecticut, especially since a sergeant supported the idea of community policing for Balcastro.
“Our contention is that you can’t reconcile ‘no light duty’ with the requirement under the law that you accommodate a pregnant woman,” Staub said. “If the answer is already no, then there was by definition no reasonable effort.”
You might say the town should have offered Balcastro temporary work in a municipal office somewhere. That’s where the facts become muddy in this case. The town said it did make an offer, which she turned down. Staub said what happened was that Balcastro went to the town after a month of her leave, and asked for something — only to have town officials offer work she wasn’t qualified for, then drag their feet until she was fully disabled due to her pregnancy.
Balcastro, who Rose said was “a good officer and a good person,” gave birth in August. She later resigned from the force to remain with her baby, Staub said.
It’s unfortunate, in a way, that the dispute became muddy on the facts, and that it settled. Only a few dozen cases involving the rights of pregnant women come before CHRO each year, spokesman Jim O’Neill said, and virtually all are settled. It’s easy to see why, as the town of Wallingford and its insurer in this case would have been nuts to risk hundreds of thousands of dollars when it could walk away for a mere $20,000.
At some point it would be important to have a court decision on that core question: Should a public safety agency have to offer light-duty work to a pregnant woman or otherwise protected person who becomes disabled, even if that agency doesn’t have any light-duty jobs as a matter of policy?
I might side with the taxpayers on that one, but in this case there was an easy answer — a job in a non-police office for Balcastro, offered quickly.