PEMBERTON TOWNSHIP, NJ Officer Shannon Sawyer has been with the police department of the Township of Pemberton, New Jersey since 2010 and has gotten high marks. Yet she’s not allowed to go to work right now because of her pregnancy.
In a lawsuit filed this week, she says that in her work for the patrol division, she was “among the best police officers with the highest amount of arrests and written enforcement of all of the officers.” Then on Jan. 2, she got a note from her doctor saying she was pregnant and needed modified duty. When she gave it to the lieutenant who was her supervisor, he immediately relieved her of patrol duty and put her on administrative work, such as handling walk-ins, working on the accreditation process the department was going through, and other tasks. She was told “there was a lot of other work she could handle,” the suit says.
She performed the modified duties for two days. But on her second day, her Chief of Police told her that the township’s business administrator had said that modified duty wasn’t acceptable and she’d have to either go on leave or go back to her regular functions.
Despite her doctor’s note, she says that she decided to continue working in her old role. But she was later told that even that option wouldn’t be acceptable, given that she had a doctor’s note requesting light duty. She was forced to take sick leave until further notice.
She’s currently out on leave, using up the time off she planned to use when her baby arrived. Her original plan had been to take leave starting May 22 through the beginning of August. Now, however, the lawsuit says she will run out of family leave on April 30 and run out of sick leave on May 3. “She’s burning through her own time,” Charles Sciarra, one of her lawyers, told ThinkProgress. After it runs out, he said, she’ll have to go on disability.
Pemberton Mayor Dave Patriarca confirmed with ThinkProgress that Sawyer is not allowed to return to work. “She’s unable to fulfill her duties as an officer according to her doctor, so she can’t come back to work until her doctor says she’s able to perform her duties,” he said. He said that light duty isn’t available to employees who have non-work related injuries. “This is a non-work related disability,” he said. “That option is not afforded for those conditions for any officer.”
But Sawyer’s lawyer Sciarra fired back that the policy was only changed after a hearing over her case. Her union, the Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 260, filed a grievance on her behalf seeking to allow her to return to work, and the township council voted 5 to 0 in her favor. But the lawsuit says that the business administrator “openly stated to the Council that he is refusing to abide” by that decision. And Sciarra told ThinkProgress that they changed the light duty policy the next day to exclude non-work disabilities. “They had a policy, the council voted to replace her, the mayor and the business administrator changed it the next day,” he said. “He’s a liar.” The lawsuit says that the administrator “failed to consider the Township’s transitional duty policy and the fact that the Chief of Police had ample work for her to complete at that time.”
It claims that the township has violated New Jersey’s anti-discrimination laws and is seeking damages to compensate Sawyer for lost benefits and wages as well as for emotional distress.
The lawsuit claims that the township has violated New Jersey’s anti-discrimination laws and is seeking damages to compensate Sawyer for lost benefits and wages as well as for emotional distress.
There are also federal laws that are meant to protect pregnant employees from being discriminated against because they are pregnant. Yet Sawyer’s case is not necessarily unique. Just last week, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in favor of Peggy Young, who sued UPS for refusing to grant her light duty after she became pregnant. An estimated quarter million women are denied their requests for accommodations in order to stay on the job while pregnant every year, which is an undercount of the need given that far more say they are too afraid to ask for them in the first place.
Other women have sued for being put onto paid leave even though they were willing to work, as in Sawyers case. Others simply end up fired. Even just in the days since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Peggy Young’s case, a woman filed a lawsuit against a collections company for rescinding her promotion after learning she was pregnant and another woman sued a cosmetic skin care practice for firing her just two days after she revealed her pregnancy.
But at the same time, more and more women are choosing to stay at work after they become pregnant. In the early 1960s, just 44 percent of women expecting their first child worked during their pregnancies; that number had shot up to 66 percent by 2008. And those who do choose to do so through most of the pregnancy. In the 1960s, only a third worked into their last month, by today more than 80 percent do.
The discrimination isn’t over after they return to work, either. Research has found that mothers are seen as less competent and committed to their work, and many employers justify firing pregnant employees based on the idea that they won’t return to work after their children arrive. Yet three-quarters of today’s new moms are back at work six months later.