Help us understand. Why, exactly, were workplace rules changed in 2015 that now leave pregnant California prison guards with an agonizing choice: either endanger their unborn babies, or change their employment status to one that imperils their careers?
Why have the accommodations commonly offered to pregnant law enforcement officers in federal, state and municipal agencies across the nation been eliminated for women who work for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation?
It’s hard to tell what is more offending – that a state agency has implemented such a cruel and unfair policy, or that it refuses to explain why.
When news reporters asked state prison officials to explain why, they responded that because their agency is being sued over the policy, they cannot talk about it. Even in its court filings, CDCR doesn’t discuss the reasons for changing the policy.
It’s time for legislators to step in with hearings and corrective legislation. It’s time for California’s new governor, Gavin Newson, to intervene. At the very least, it’s time for an explanation.
The controversy surfaced last year, when Kern County Superior Court Judge Thomas Clark approved a preliminary injunction prohibiting CDCR from applying its new policy to Sarah Coogle, a Tehachapi prison guard.
In a heart-wrenching lawsuit, Coogle explained how she asked for light duty, when she became pregnant. But the 2015 rule change, which now limits light duty to only 60 days within a six-month period, effectively eliminates the reasonable “accommodation” for women, who are pregnant for longer than 60 days.
Instead, Coogle was presented with options – continue working in her full capacity; take a demotion; or take unpaid leave. In addition to the financial impacts, the options can jeopardize peace officer certification.
Coogle, who agreed to continue working as a guard, was on duty in summer 2017 when she was summoned to respond to an inmate fight. As the seven-month pregnant woman ran to a building, she fell. Complaining of abdominal pain, she was taken to a hospital by ambulance, where it was determined that no harm had come to the baby.
However, with her pain worsening, Coogle later returned to a hospital, where her full-term baby girl was delivered stillborn due to a ruptured placenta attributed to the fall.
This month, in a separate Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit, six more CDCR female officers sued over the failure to accommodate pregnancies.
“We’re hoping that by filing this lawsuit, it will once and for all put a stop to this illegal practice,” said attorney Arnold Peter, who also represented Coogle. “If the LA County court agrees with us, like Kern County did in the Coogle case, it will have a statewide impact.”
Just two examples of the claims the women are making in the new lawsuit include one who said she opted to continue working after being denied light duty. She blames the work assignment for causing her to miscarry. When she became pregnant again, she opted to take unpaid leave.
Another woman contends she asked to swap her heavy gear belt for a vest to shift weight from her pregnant belly. Prison officials allegedly stonewalled responding to her request. Instead, they assigned her overtime patrolling that required climbing three tiers of stairs. Eventually, she opted to take a leave for the rest of her pregnancy.
According to CalHR data, as of 2017, women made up less than 15 percent of CDCR’s workforce of about 23,000 correctional officers. And among these few women, even fewer likely would be pregnant.
So, it’s a head-scratcher why CDCR discontinued its policy to give pregnant prison guard temporary light duty to protect the women and their unborn babies.
We hope the reason isn’t to send a message: Women need not apply for CDCR jobs.