Public Safety

Iowa justices revive firefighter's claim of pregnancy discrimination

Part of Clinton firefighter's leave was unpaid

Gavel at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. (Photo illustration by Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Gavel at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. (Photo illustration by Liz Martin/The Gazette)

By Trish Mehaffey, The Gazette

The Iowa Supreme Court tossed out a lower-court ruling Thursday that went against a female Clinton firefighter who had sued the city for not being allowed to work on light duty after she became pregnant.

The court found that Karen McQuiston, a 10-year employee of the Clinton Fire Department, failed to prove her claims of equal protection and due process violations. But justices sent the issue back to the district court anyway to consider pregnancy discrimination under state civil rights law.

In May 2011. McQuiston told Fire Chief Mark Regenwether about her pregnancy and she requested light-duty for the rest of it, according to court records. She didn’t have a pregnancy-related condition that would qualify as a disability.

Clinton had an administrative policy on light-duty work for employees who had been injured on the job and were eligible for worker compensation. It defined light-duty as “modified work for employees injured on the job unable to temporarily return to their regular classification.” Light-duty for a firefighter would include conducting inspections, fire prevention duties, training assignments and other work not involving emergency responses.

By the end of that September, McQuiston’s pregnancy had advanced and she was no longer able to perform emergency response duties and couldn’t fit into her protective uniform, court records show. Her doctor recommended she stop her regular duties, and she took a leave of absence by using vacation and sick leave time.

She received pay initially, but once the vacation and sick time were used, her leave was unpaid.

McQuiston had her baby in January 2012 and returned to her job as an engineer and paramedic in March.

Roxanne Conlin, McQuiston’s attorney, argued in March before the court that McQuiston shouldn’t have been forced to take leave because pregnancy is a temporary disability that is “entitled to be accommodated” by law. The city policy said firefighters can be put on light duty only for an injury that occurred on the job — but female police officers are allowed to go on light-duty when they are pregnant based on their union contract, Conlin pointed out.

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Under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, it is unfair in employment to discriminate against an employee based on various classifications including sex or disability, the ruling said. The justices noted that several claims of discrimination based on pregnancy have been addressed over the years. Some cases held that pregnancy constituted a temporary disability and that an employment policy failed to treat pregnant employees the same way it treated disabled employees for using leave.

One of the cases cited involved a Cedar Rapids schoolteacher in 1975. In Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Parr, the court found an employment policy discriminated because it imposed special restrictions on pregnant employees that didn’t apply to employees with other conditions.

In 1987, the Legislature amended a section of law governing employment policies on pregnancy, which included a provision that declared disabilities caused by an employee’s pregnancy to be a temporary disability. Another statute added later requires employers to grant employees disabled by pregnancy a leave of absence for up to eight weeks if leave isn’t already available under a health, temporary disability or sick leave plan.

In this case, the Supreme Court said the question is whether the Legislature intended for more recent statutes to grant all pregnant employees greater rights than those guaranteed under previous laws. The court sent the case back to the lower court to be evaluated under a standard that would compare McQuiston with “all those temporarily disabled, not just those injured off the job.”

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