Pregnant firefighters could be putting their health and their unborn baby’s health on the line in Indian River County, all because they can’t afford not to work.
Indian River County firefighters are among the only in the state that are not offered a light duty policy when they are pregnant.
That means, if they have not accrued enough sick and vacation time, they could have to work in strenuous, hazardous conditions up until the day they deliver.
“We’re behind the times,” said Indian River County Fire Union President John O'Connor.
O’Connor says this has been a lost battle for years trying to get a light duty pregnancy policy on the books for firefighters.
Now, he hopes public outcry will be what it takes to finally spark change.
Engineer and Solo Fire Medic, Nicole Morris, is more than 6 months pregnant. Because she can not go on light duty, she will have to work throughout her entire pregnancy, which could include activity potentially harmful to her unborn baby.
She needs to save all of her vacation and sick time for maternity leave. Her doctor has told her she needs at least 8 weeks to recover.
Another Engineer and Solo Fire Medic, Christen Brewer, knows first hand how dangerous the job can be for anyone, especially a pregnant woman.
She was more than seven months pregnant several years ago when she responded to a man high on bath salts.
“He grabbed a machete and tried to kill us,” Brewer said.
After that, she wanted to take action to better protect her baby, and asked for a light duty reassignment.
"And the HR director at the time said the fetus is not the employee. You are the employee. And if you die I’ll write your husband a check for $50,000 and be done with it.”
She realized if something happened to her baby because she was not on light duty, there would be no compensation for the baby.
So, she ended up using some of her sick and vacation time to take off work before giving birth, minimizing the amount of time she could take off after giving birth.
“There’s no compensation for losing an unborn child,” O’ Connor said.
That is why O’Connor thinks it is even more important to let women take light duty. But talks with county leaders in the past have gone nowhere, he said.
“I can only assume that they’re concerned with cost but we’re talking about the life of a female firefighter,” O’Connor said.
Brewer said it takes a very long time to accrue enough vacation time to take off for pregnancy needs.
“If you’re a young woman and you come to our department, it would take you 6-7 years to accumulate that much sick or vacation to cover your pregnancy,” Brewer explained.
The fire department does allow firefighters to work up to 12 extra shifts in advance to add to their time off. However, Morris says she hasn’t been able to get approval from Fire Chief John King for all of those shifts.
O’Connor plans to keep fighting for a pregnancy policy, but his next chance to do so for firefighter contracts, specifically, is not any time soon.
“Next opportunity to get it into a contract would probably be September of 2019.”
So, he is thinking bigger picture. The lack of a light duty pregnancy policy affects all county employees, except those working for the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office.
He hopes to encourage county leaders to change the policy county-wide.
“It’s going to have to be public outcry at a commission meeting or voters themselves can decide in 2018,” O’ Connor said.
He is aiming to express his concerns to county commissioners in the next couple weeks.