FRANKFORT, Illinois -- A suburban police department discriminated against a pregnant officer by denying her reasonable job accommodations and a properly fitting protective vest, and then forcing her to go on leave months before her due date, she claims in a newly filed lawsuit.
Frankfort police Officer Jennifer Panattoni said the south suburban department refused to provide clothing and gear needed to perform her patrol duties safely as her pregnancy progressed last year.
The 14-year veteran said she and her union representative tried repeatedly to negotiate temporary modifications to her patrol officer duties, but department leaders rejected the proposals.
"My intent was to continue working with this department in any capacity possible," said Panattoni, 37, of south suburban Manhattan. "I tried to come up with as many different jobs that I could possibly do while still being productive within the department. Working with the detectives, following up on cases, witness interviews, community service, taking walk-in complaints at the station. ... It seemed like any time I brought something up, it was just automatically denied."
Frankfort Village Administrator Rob Piscia said in a written statement that while he could not comment on the details of a pending lawsuit, the village has complied with state and federal law as well as the terms of the Police Department's collective bargaining agreement.
"The Village of Frankfort and the Frankfort Police Department are strongly committed to a discrimination-free workplace and to providing reasonable accommodations to employees who need them to perform their jobs," he said. "Both the village and the department have long maintained and enforced comprehensive equal employment opportunity policies and strictly prohibit retaliation against employees who engage in protected conduct under those policies."
Panattoni said she and her husband, a sergeant in the same police department, tried to have a baby for years and began fertility treatments in 2014.
In January 2016, she informed Frankfort police Chief John Burica that she was pregnant and tried to discuss modifications of her job duties as the pregnancy progressed, according to the lawsuit, which the American Civil Liberties Union filed against the village of Frankfort on Panattoni's behalf Monday in federal court.
"Chief Burica refused to discuss accommodations," the suit says. "He told Officer Panattoni that modified duty assignments were only available to officers injured on the job. He explained that he did not want to 'set precedent' by extending 'light duty' to a pregnant officer, and that he only had to treat Officer Panattoni like 'someone with a broken leg' whose injury occurred during off-duty hours."
The chief told Panattoni she would have to go on leave if she could not perform her job duties without any changes, according to the lawsuit. She said she went on leave involuntarily at five months pregnant, first exhausting her paid benefits and then drawing on her disability pension, which was roughly half her regular paycheck.
The department also refused her requests to provide extenders so she could comfortably wear her body armor without it pressing against her abdomen, making it difficult for her to breathe and causing her vest to pop open, according to the lawsuit.
"My bulletproof vest, it was so small that it wouldn't cover my belly, it wouldn't stay closed," Panattoni said. "I got to feeling that just due to my equipment by itself that I wasn't safe, especially being pregnant."
Panattoni had requested a maternity uniform and the department "ultimately only provided her with two ill-fitting men's shirts and one pair of non-maternity pants. Officer Panattoni was charged with providing her own suspenders to keep the pants from falling down," the court documents say.
She was also denied permission to carry her equipment — pepper spray, Taser, radio — in the pockets of her vest to relieve the pressure from her 25-pound duty belt, which was causing her growing belly pain, according to court documents.
The lawsuit says the department has allowed other officers to carry equipment in their vest carriers and that similar uniform and body armor requests have been granted to nonpregnant officers.
Panattoni in July filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
After a healthy pregnancy, Panattoni gave birth to her son, Nathan, in August 2016 and returned to work that October. She said she has begun fertility treatments again and hopes to have more children, but wants her department to change its approach to pregnancy accommodation for her and other officers who might become pregnant in the future.
"I don't think I should have to quit my job and choose. I think I should be able to do both," she said.
She is seeking compensation for pay lost while on leave, damages for emotional distress and revision of department policies regarding pregnancy and childbirth.
ACLU attorney Amy Meek said it's very common for police departments to make accommodations for employees injured on the job, and it doesn't create a hardship for the force.
"The law entitles pregnant employees to have similar or equal treatment to other employees who need accommodations," she said. "We hear all the time from women who feel like they are put in a situation where they have to choose between maintaining a healthy pregnancy and keeping their jobs."
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