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Pregnancy and Policing

I was flying back from the Midwest last week when I encountered an obviously pregnant TSA agent posted at the metal detector. I chatted with her a bit about her uniform (a “maternity” uniform shirt with a tie in the back allowing the waist to “grow” with the agent) and her duties (standard duties except she has no physical contact with passengers).  After I got on my flight, I pondered how our unarmed airport security forces apparently handle employee pregnancy better than most law enforcement agencies. 

As I travel throughout the United States, what to do with a pregnant police officer is still one of the most poorly handled, contentious, and misunderstood issues in law enforcement, especially in medium and smaller agencies.  It can be a complicated issue, but there are a few things that both the officers and their administrators need to think about when it comes to the issue of “pregnancy and policing.” 

“Fair and equal” treatment is important when it comes to male and female officers, but finding balance can be problematic when it comes to pregnancy because of the indisputable fact that men don’t get pregnant.  The best way to deal with this is to have sound, logical policy for treating the pregnant police officer.  A “pregnancy policy” is different than a “maternity policy,” and you need to have both.  A pregnancy policy outlines what to do with the pregnant officer while she is still able to work in some capacity; a “maternity policy” basically deals with the extended leave that follows the pregnancy.  Ideally, departments should also offer “paternity leave” to male officers but keep in mind that “maternity leave” is generally a medical issue, while “paternity leave” is primarily a family issue.  Both may be covered by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) but unless your agency has policy allowing the use of paid leave (sick time, comp time, vacation time) FMLA is unpaid, which most people can’t afford to take full advantage of.

The length of maternity leave is generally up to the agency and the women’s physician, but women usually need a minimum of 6-8 weeks to recover from child birth.   And men, before you say “that’s not fair” when it comes to women taking that much leave time, keep in mind that your female co-worker just spent nine months growing a human being inside of her body, pushing it out of a very small opening, (or having it cut out of her with a scalpel) and then recovering from all of that physical trauma with a very limited amount of rest.  Trust me, if men could have babies, most women would probably be just fine with that. 

A police agency’s leave policy also needs to take into account a high risk pregnancy, where the pregnant officer may be prescribed bed rest, as well as time off allowed for both men and women who are adopting or for a same-sex spouse or partner to take leave when a new baby is coming into their family.  We are truly living in a “Modern Family” world and our police needs to reflect that. 

Both police administrators and pregnant officers are often uninformed or simply confused about the employee's rights and the agency’s responsibilities when it comes to a pregnant employee. Many female officers have been denied pay, sent home, suspended, and even fired (yes, fired) because they were pregnant.  The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) requires that all employers treat “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions” the same “as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”  Simply put, the agency has to treat pregnancy like any other injury or illness. Some women bristle at that description, but understand there has to be a legal baseline for administrators to operate from. Note that the PDA does not prohibit policies that favor pregnant women, nor does it require employers to provide more favorable treatment to pregnant employees.  The law simply states that workplace’s must treat pregnant women similarly to a “disabled” or injured employee.  So if the agency doesn’t allow “light duty” for injured or disabled personnel, they don’t have to allow it for pregnant women.  Because of this, women often end up sitting at home collecting partial disability pay, using up all of their disability or taking unpaid leave.  This is usually a hardship for the officer and her family and a terrible waste of manpower and talent for the department.

Unlike many of the issues that modern law enforcement faces, this one has an easy fix, but both the officers and the administration need to get involved.   If you’re an administrator, take a look at your policy and make sure yours addresses these issues as fairly as possible.  If you don’t have policy, find a department who does a good job of handling this situation and ask to see theirs.  You can also get your officers, male and female, involved in customizing a policy for your agency.  Police commanders also need to remember to be compassionate; pregnancy is a life-changing event for any police officer and can be taxing both physically and emotionally.

If you’re the officer, you also have responsibilities.  Finding out you’re pregnant is one of life’s most unforgettable moments. Rejoice in this amazing journey, but don’t expect your police department to go there with you.  Plan on being treated like a goddess at home, but expect to be treated like a police officer on the job.  Work full duty as long as it’s safe (that’s up to you and your doctor) and then if your department doesn’t offer light duty, try negotiating. Offer to help out anywhere there is work that you can safely do, even if it’s not your dream assignment.  It’s not the department’s job to find you a wonderfully fulfilling assignment; it’s their job to run a public safety organization.  So if you get assigned to file reports or process bicycle registrations, do it really really well and don’t complain.  Understand what you control and what you don’t.  The agency gets to put you where they need you, that’s the nature of working in a paramilitary organization.  And if there’s no light duty and you have to go out on disability, do so with grace, but do your research and see if you have any legal recourse. 

Pregnancy is a wonderful event for a family, but it can be a confusing time for an employer, especially in a high risk profession like police work.  Only female officers can get pregnant, so we can’t treat men and women “equally” on this issue.  We must work together to benefit the officer, the department, and the community.  Do your research, have a solid and legal policy in place, be professional, show compassion, and rejoice in the impending addition to your law enforcement family.