Preg­nant prison guards sue for ac­com­mo­da­tions

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - News - BY WES VENTEICHER wven­te­[email protected]

Cor­rec­tional of­fi­cer Sarah Coogle was seven months preg­nant in the sum­mer of 2017 when an alarm sounded dur­ing her shift at a Cal­i­for­nia state prison in Te­hachapi.

Coogle ran to­ward the ring­ing and fell. She felt pain in her ab­domen im­me­di­ately. Two months later, in her 38th week of preg­nancy, her baby was still-born.

She be­lieves she wouldn’t have lost the baby had the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­vided her the same ac­com­mo­da­tions the fed­eral Bureau of Pris­ons and other state and lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies rou­tinely pro­vide preg­nant women, in­clud­ing let­ting them trans­fer tem­po­rar­ily to po­si­tions with lighter work­loads without los­ing se­nior­ity.

“I would have taken that po­si­tion, I never would have been run­ning, I never would have fallen and I never would have lost my baby,” Coogle said.

Cal­i­for­nia state cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers who be­come preg­nant face a dif­fi­cult choice, ac­cord­ing to a newly filed class ac­tion law­suit. They can keep work­ing and risk their ba­bies’ health, take a leave of ab­sence and lose pay or switch to a dif­fer­ent po­si­tion and risk los­ing their peace of­fi­cer cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, which can com­pro­mise their fu­ture in public safety.

That pol­icy is fairly new. The Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions had a pol­icy accommodat­ing preg­nant women un­til 2015, when the depart­ment qui­etly got rid of it for rea­sons that it has re­fused to ex­plain.

“We’re not aware of any other ma­jor law en­force­ment agency that has this kind of pol­icy,” said Arnold Peter, of Peter Law Group, the firm rep­re­sent­ing six fe­male cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers who an­nounced their suit March 26.

‘THESE ARE MEN’S JOBS’

The case in Los An­ge­les County Su­pe­rior Court is the third law­suit filed over the pol­icy change. Coogle sued the depart­ment and so did for­mer cor­rec­tional of­fi­cer Amanda Van Fleet, who said she was de­nied ac­com­mo­da­tions at Cal­i­for­nia Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo fol­low­ing a hep­ati­tis C scare when she stuck her fin­ger on some­thing sharp in an in­mate’s jacket.

Cal­i­for­nia’s own Depart­ment of Fair Em­ploy­ment and Hous­ing, which en­forces workplace dis­crim­i­na­tion laws, joined Van Fleet’s law­suit, seek­ing a re­turn to the pre-2015 pol­icy. The Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions is fight­ing the two women’s law­suits in Kern and San Luis Obispo county su­pe­rior courts.

“We do not com­ment on pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion,” CDCR spokes­woman Vicky Wa­ters said in an email. “CDCR has and be­lieves in strong nondis­crim­i­na­tion poli­cies, in­clud­ing pol­icy to en­sure that rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tions are pro­vided where ap­pro­pri­ate.”

The three law­suits ar­gue the depart­ment’s re­fusal to ac­com­mo­date preg­nant em­ploy­ees with mod­i­fied as­sign­ments vi­o­lates state and fed­eral workplace pro­tec­tions for women.

The Kern County Su­pe­rior Court is­sued an in­junc­tion in Coogle’s suit that sus­pended CDCR’s pol­icy for her dur­ing preg­nancy, but not for other CDCR em­ploy­ees. CDCR set­tled with Van Fleet, but the Depart­ment of Fair Em­ploy­ment and Hous­ing is still pur­su­ing a pol­icy change re­lated to her case.

In court fil­ings so far, CDCR doesn’t dis­cuss its rea­sons for chang­ing the pol­icy in 2015.

The change does not ap­pear to stem from con­cerns about staffing short­ages. A 2016 cor­rec­tions re­port noted the state’s in­spec­tor gen­eral had de­ter­mined the depart­ment was in 100% ad­her­ence with staffing re­quire­ments. A Leg­isla­tive An­a­lyst’s Of­fice re­port from 2018 said the depart­ment had no trou­ble re­cruit­ing or re­tain­ing staff.

“This is a not-so-sub­tle way of telling women, ‘these are men’s jobs,’ ” said Kather­ine Spil­lar, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Los An­ge­les-based Fem­i­nist Ma­jor­ity Foun­da­tion, a non­profit that stud­ies women in law en­force­ment. “And if they’re go­ing to take a man’s job, they’re go­ing to be treated like a man.”

FEWER WOMEN WORK­ING IN STATE PRIS­ONS

Women made up just be­low 15% of CDCR’s work­force of about 23,000 cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers as of 2017, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est CalHR data. That’s down from about 20% in 2009, ac­cord­ing to the data.

An­gela Pow­ell, 32, a cor­rec­tional of­fi­cer at Cal­i­for­nia Med­i­cal Fa­cil­ity in Va­cav­ille, said she asked in sum­mer 2017 to swap her gear belt for a vest to shift weight from her preg­nant belly. Hold­ing keys, hand­cuffs, pep­per spray, a flash­light, a ba­ton and other gear, the belts can weigh 15 to 20 pounds.

Pow­ell said she waited seven weeks for a re­sponse, when she was told she would have to sub­mit more pa­per­work. Around the same time, she was fin­ish­ing an eight-hour shift when a su­pe­rior told her she would have to work an­other six hours of over­time pa­trolling a unit with three tiers of stairs.

She said she went home and con­tacted her doc­tor, who wrote a note re­gard­ing her con­di­tion that she pre­sented the next day ask­ing for a re­prieve from manda­tory over­time.

“When I turned that in, I was ba­si­cally laughed at and told that wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen,” she said.

She took leave for the rest of her preg­nancy. She said when she re­turned to work af­ter giv­ing birth to her son, she was told 10% of her pay would be with­held for a year for in­sub­or­di­na­tion over re­fus­ing the shift. The prison even­tu­ally dropped that ad­verse ac­tion, she said.

“We would like the pol­icy to be changed back so women can con­tinue work­ing and grow their fam­ily at the same time,” Pow­ell said.

A CHOICE BE­TWEEN ‘YOUR JOB AND THE LIFE OF YOUR UN­BORN CHILD’

Melissa Glaude, 37, a med­i­cal tech­ni­cal as­sis­tant at the Va­cav­ille prison and a plain­tiff in the new suit, had her first child in 2017. At that time, Glaude said, her job clas­si­fi­ca­tion fell un­der the Depart­ment of State Hos­pi­tals.

Her su­per­vi­sors ac­com­mo­dated her start­ing at nine weeks, when the depart­ment moved her to an of­fice tech po­si­tion. She said she worked un­til her 36th week of preg­nancy without prob­lems.

Then the job was re­clas­si­fied un­der CDCR. She be­came preg­nant again last Oc­to­ber. She said the depart­ment of­fered some ac­com­mo­da­tions, ex­empt­ing her from over­time, but even that didn’t last.

She said she re­ceived an email dur­ing that time not­ing she would be re­spon­si­ble for re­spond­ing to an in­mate emer­gency if an alarm sounded. She started tak­ing leave at 25 weeks preg­nant.

“As a mother you’re be­ing forced to choose be­tween your job and the life of your un­born child,” she said. “It’s a choice you have to make but you don’t re­ally have any other choice. I’m not will­ing to put my child in harm’s way for the sake of any­thing, re­ally.”

The 2015 pol­icy change co­in­cided with a new con­tract for the union that rep­re­sents cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers, the Cal­i­for­nia Cor­rec­tional Peace Of­fi­cers As­so­ci­a­tion.

The union didn’t sup­port end­ing preg­nancy ac­com­mo­da­tions, CCPOA spokes­woman Ni­chol Gomez said.

“The CCPOA team con­cluded that the old pol­icy wasn’t bro­ken and shouldn’t be fixed,” Gomez said in an email. “The sys­tem had been work­ing for the in­di­vid­u­als who need it. The CCPOA team dis­agreed with the ba­sic reg­u­la­tion change so strongly the CCPOA team mem­bers chose not to put CCPOA’s stamp of ap­proval on the idea.”

RENÉE C. BYER [email protected]

Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer An­gela Pow­ell, who works in Va­cav­ille, wipes tears from her eyes last week af­ter talk­ing about fel­low of­fi­cer Sarah Coogle, who fell while work­ing a shift in Te­hachapi and gave birth to a still­born child two months later.

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