Nov. 29–After a pregnant patrol officer was ordered to stay home during most of her pregnancy and exhaust all of her accrued vacation and sick days, pickets appeared at the South Jersey police station and protested the decision made by Pemberton Township’s administrator.
The police union representing Shannon Sawyer also jumped in, filing a grievance that led the Township Council to vote in February in favor of having her return to work immediately.
Still, Sawyer was forced to remain home until after her baby boy arrived in late June. By then, she was on unpaid leave, but she wanted to spend some time with her newborn.
Now, Sawyer is back at work with an extra $150,000 to help defray her lost wages and benefits. This month, she was granted the lump sum in an out-of-court settlement after she had sued the township for pregnancy discrimination and emotional distress over an issue that police experts say is a thorny problem that police departments face across the country.
“What to do with a pregnant police officer is still one of the most poorly handled, contentious, and misunderstood issues in law enforcement,” retired Police Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith wrote in an article published at Officer.com last year.
Smith, who now runs a consulting business based in Tucson, Ariz., that advises police departments around the country, said in a recent interview that the problem continued to be a top issue for law enforcement and was among “the most contentious.” She said the answers were “not as cut-and-dried as you might think.”
According to the Office of Community Oriented Policing in the U.S. Department of Justice, women make up 13 percent of police departments, most significantly in large cities.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police also has published articles on the issue, including one in 2006 that said police departments need to develop a policy on pregnancy that “supports parenthood without compromising police operations . . . and without violating antidiscrimination law.” The association article said it is illegal for an employer to “take anticipatory action against a pregnant employee, or to make general assumptions about the impact that a pregnancy might have on a woman’s ability to do her job.”
Sawyer, one of three women on the 50-member police department in Pemberton Township, filed suit in Superior Court in March, saying Township Administrator Dennis Gonzalez had discriminated against her by forcing her to take a leave of absence when she was in her third month of pregnancy though she had no health issues.
Gonzalez had also overruled the Town Council’s unanimous vote to have her return to work, the suit said, and refused to allow her to perform desk duty that had been approved by Police Chief David Jantas.
Last week, Gonzalez said in an interview that the settlement included “no admission of liability” and was approved because the insurance company didn’t want to pay the cost of litigation.
Sawyer, 27, has been a patrol officer in Pemberton for nearly six years. About a month ago, after a four-month maternity leave, she returned to her job of patrolling in the town, a woodsy and rural Burlington County municipality. Besides the lump sum, the settlement also provides her with three months of paid time off as reimbursement for the weeks in which she sat at home, waiting to deliver her first child.
Her husband, David, is also a Pemberton patrolman.
Shannon Sawyer did not respond to a request for an interview. The settlement is confidential and binds the parties who agreed to it from disclosing the terms. John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, released the settlement after obtaining it through a public records request, saying the township was a public body and that the public was entitled to know about it.
Christopher Gray, a Hamilton attorney with Sciarra & Catrambone who represented Sawyer, said that Sawyer’s bulletproof vest and gun belt had become uncomfortable and that led her doctor to suggest she request light duty.
“She could still work, and that’s why the police chief had designed all these duties and responsibilities that only a police officer could do” and that could be performed in headquarters, Gray said. He said the department was applying for accreditation and that this effort required the compilation of data by a police officer.
Gray also said that another female patrol officer in the department had been assigned desk duty when she was pregnant and worked nearly up until the time she had delivered.
When Sawyer’s request for light duty was denied, she told Gonzalez that she would continue on patrol, Gray said. Gonzalez rejected her offer, saying it would be a “liability,” Gray said.
“Pregnant women are vulnerable to discrimination in the workplace,” Gray said, citing New Jersey’s pregnancy discrimination law. The statute said that legislators became aware of reports in which women who requested an accommodation were “removed from their positions, placed on unpaid leave, or fired” and that they wanted to enact job protections for these women.
Gray said Sawyer was told in January that she had to take all of her time off and also had to take unpaid family leave, causing her to exhaust all of the time she was entitled to take this year by May, nearly two months before the baby arrived, Gray said. From that time until last month, she went without pay, he said.
Gonzalez said that he was appointed by Mayor David Patriarca and is tasked with making all of the administrative decisions, under Pemberton’s form of government. He said the council only sets policy and the chief controls operations. Patriarca did not return calls for comment.
Assigning Sawyer to light duty would have wasted taxpayers’ money, Gonzalez said. He said that clerks who earn far less than police officers should handle the police department’s paperwork. “We don’t have clerical spots for sworn police officers,” he said. Gonzalez said Sawyer earns $85,000 a year.
The federal pregnancy discrimination law says pregnancy should be accommodated the same way as other disabilities, and the courts have ruled that pregnant employees should be afforded “equal treatment” as those who are disabled, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Smith, the policing consultant who had served 29 years on the Naperville, Ill. police force, said one reason pregnant police officers may face discrimination is due to emotions and the lingering belief by some that women shouldn’t be in law enforcement.
A male police chief or an administrator “may feel he has to protect her and take care of her,” Smith said.
“I have had administrators say to me, ‘I wouldn’t let my wife do that.’ We have to take emotion out of this.”
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