Fla. firefighter denied light duty in 7th month of pregnancy
Nicole Morris, 35, said she is struggling to endure 24-hour shifts as she nears the end of her pregnancy
By Mary Helen Moore
Treasure Coast Newspapers
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY, Fla. — Every 24-hour shift for firefighter-paramedic Nicole Morris gets harder for her to endure.
She's not sick or hurt. She's pregnant.
And according to the contract negotiated in 2016 between the International Association of Firefighters Local 2201 and the Indian River County Emergency Services District, she can't be assigned to light duty.
Morris, 35, has been employed by Indian River County Fire Rescue for longer than a decade, and is now nearly seven months pregnant with her second child.
She has about 500 hours of paid time off saved up. Firefighters work a day, then get two days off, which totals about two months of paid leave. Morris wants to delay taking that as long as possible.
"Right now I'm scheduled to work until the day before my C-section," Morris said.
Her doctor has told her it’s not good for her or the baby to continue working in the field so far into her pregnancy, but with another child at home, she said she doesn’t really have a choice.
"Who could go 12 weeks without a paycheck?" Morris said.
Brevard, St. Lucie and Martin counties and Orlando all have policies in place that allow pregnant firefighters to be reassigned from a combat position to a "light duty" post with no dock in pay.
The Indian River County Sheriff's Office puts pregnant deputies on light duty as soon as they're told of the pregnancy, said Maj. Eric Flowers, Sheriff's Office spokesman.
But the collective bargaining agreement between Indian River County and the firefighters union specifically prohibits the practice:
26.12 Bargaining unit employees shall not be entitled to light or restricted duty for non-duty related illness, injury, or condition (such as pregnancy), except as required by applicable law.
"We spend a third of our lives dedicated to taking care of the people of Indian River County, and they won’t take care of us," Morris said.
She said her first four months of pregnancy went smoothly, but as her third trimester progresses, things are getting tougher.
"My gear alone is 70 pounds," Morris said. "When we’re running calls, it’s a lot of physical stuff. We’re lifting patients, doing CPR, carrying all kinds of heavy equipment, dealing with carfentanil (a potentially deadly synthetic opioid), dealing with violent patients."
Policies in place
Indian River County Administrator Jason Brown said there are some policies in place that allow pregnant women to take time off.
It takes two months for firefighters to earn the 24 hours of sick leave necessary for a day off. That's six days per year, plus between between 11 and 21 vacation days per year.
Up to 42 days of vacation and 100 days of sick leave may be accumulated, a process that can take years.
The county also allows firefighters to donate sick leave to other employees and work up to 12 standby shifts. Standby shifts are agreements in which an employee works someone's shift in exchange for that person to work a shift for them on a later date.
Morris is working standby shifts to ensure a paycheck as she recovers from the birth of her child, but it means 48 consecutive hours of work. She has completed nine standbys, but can't get the last three approved because the other employees who agreed don't rank as highly as her.
The shift exchange program requires employees be of equal or higher qualification, although exceptions may be granted by Fire Chief John King.
Morris said she reached out to King and the offices of all the county commissioners to try and get some flexibility, but was declined by the chief and denied a meeting with commissioners.
King's office declined comment and referred questions to spokesman Assistant Chief Brian Burkeen.
"We are directing any and all inquiries on this matter to the County Attorney's Office," Burkeen said in an email.
County Attorney Dylan Reingold said there wasn't much the county could address at this stage because the current contract was negotiated in 2016 and will remain in effect through September 2019.
"There’s a contract. That’s what exists between the parties," Reingold said. "The terms in this agreement were specifically negotiated and agreed upon."
He said he directed commissioners not to comment to the news media about this issue.
"I specifically told them — this is an issue of a collective bargaining agreement," Reingold said.
A person answering the main phone line for the County Commission office directs anyone inquiring about the issue to talk to the county attorney. Commissioners Susan Adams and Joe Flescher directed inquiries to Reingold.
Brown said the union did not make any formal proposals to modify pregnancy policies in the last two negotiations.
"We always try to work with our employees to make any time off, like a pregnancy, as easy and seamless as we can," Brown said. "We want to make sure all our firefighters are safe."
Union President John O'Connor, however, said he was pretty sure maternity policies were brought up in the last negotiation, and that it's important to give women a light-duty option so they can safely start families.
"I personally haven’t come across a department yet that doesn’t have some sort of light duty policy," O'Connor said. "Going into a hazardous environment that could be anywhere from 700 to 1,000 degrees puts the female firefighter and the unborn baby at a substantial risk of being hurt."
The Family Medical Leave Act provides employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. It runs concurrently with paid sick leave.
"That's just them holding your job without pay," Morris said.
Morris said she is worried as she approaches her due date she will become less and less of a help to her team.
“They’re going to feel like they need to help me,” she said.
Others had same issue
Christen Brewer has been with Indian River Fire Rescue for 19 years and has had two children in her time with the department.
"When I started trying to have a baby, I started working standbys," Brewer said. "I started way in advance. You really have to plan."
Brewer said she requested light duty when she was seven months pregnant with her second child.
Around that time, she responded to a call in which a man threatened to kill her and her child with a machete.
"I was in a dangerous situation. I just had to get myself out of the way," she said.
When she was having her first child, Brewer said she was "lucky enough" to get hurt on the job. She injured her back picking a man up, and the emergency room and workman’s compensation doctors did not clear her to return to work.
"It just happened to be that way. It was actually safer," Brewer said.
O'Connor said the 12 shifts of standby allowed by the county did not have a cap until the most recent contract negotiation.
Brewer said if the county cannot give them light duty or paid leave, the cap on the number of standby shifts one can work should at least be removed.
“It is something we would like, but it would come at a cost to the county,” she said about paid leave specifically for pregnancies. “The standbys cost the county nothing.”
Brewer said there are about 20 women working as firefighters for the department.
“They’re young. They’re going to want to start families,” she said. “We’re way out of touch.”
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