It is no secret that women face barriers to equal employment every day all over the world. In the United States, some of the most blatant and persistent obstacles center around the role of women in reproduction, and our societal and cultural norms regarding childcare. This is especially true in traditionally male-dominated workforces, such as law enforcement. The problem is so intractable that in some cases, even when we win, the same problem sprouts up years later in a slightly different form.
In the latest example, the ACLU and New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) won a case against the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) for pregnancy discrimination, only to discover that the SCPD had instituted a new, blatantly discriminatory policy a few years later.
In 2001, the ACLU and NYCLU filed a sex discrimination lawsuit, Lochren v. County of Suffolk, challenging an SCPD policy that prohibited pregnant police officers from being assigned temporary "light-duty" assignments, such as desk jobs, when they requested them. This policy meant that pregnant officers were forced either to take unpaid leave from work or to continue to walk a beat without a gunbelt or bullet-proof vest, which do not come in maternity sizes. At trial, one of our plaintiffs modeled the gun belt and vest, demonstrating that her pregnant belly was completely exposed by the vest and she was unable to reach her gun. The jury found that the police department had engaged in discrimination, the plaintiffs got relief, the county agreed to change the policy, and we celebrated victory.
But last year, we learned that SCPD had changed its policies once again to discriminate against pregnant officers, as well as officers on maternity leave. The SCPD’s new policy singled out pregnant employees and employees who had recently given birth for stricter oversight from their supervisors when they needed to use sick leave and restricted their ability to use their accrued paid time off after giving birth. This policy treated pregnant officers and officers who had just given birth differently from anyone else, which on its face violates state and federal law. It also diminished the value of pregnant women’s leave benefits, resulting in a substantial financial burden on women and their families.
When the Suffolk County Association of Women Police first contacted us about the new policy, we were left scratching our heads. After Lochren, how did SCPD not understand that it was engaging in unlawful pregnancy discrimination yet again? But at least this time around we didn’t have to sue. After several months of advocacy by the NYCLU and ACLU, the SCPD rescinded the maternity leave policy and in its place established a policy that allows pregnant officers to utilize leave in the same manner as everyone else.
We are pleased that the SCPD took swift action to remedy this policy. Hopefully, this augurs a new commitment on the part of the SCPD to equal treatment of women police officers—and we won’t find ourselves wrangling with them yet again in a few years’ time. But we’d stay tuned if we were you…
— by Galen Sherwin, Staff Attorney, ACLU Women’s Rights Project & Katharine Bodde, Staff Attorney, NYCLU