A former Wallingford police officer has settled a discrimination claim against the town’s police department, which refused to give her a light duty assignment after she became pregnant last year.
The settlement announcement on Friday, May 3, came a little more than a month after the Wallingford Town Council voted to authorize a settlement rather than endure potentially costly litigation. The final deal — which will give former Officer Annie Balcastro $20,000 in back pay — was touted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and the law firm of Outten and Golden, which also worked on the case, as a reaffirmation of the rights of pregnant women in the workforce.
"In a growing number of states, women like Annie Balcastro are fighting back against policies that push them out of the workplace when they are pregnant," said Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. "The ability to stay on the job is key to women’s equality in the workplace."
Balcastro joined the department in August 2011. In January 2012, she learned that she was pregnant and unable to continue her patrol duties. She asked the police chief if she could be temporarily reassigned to lighter duty. Balcastro claimed that the chief denied her request and gave her no other option than to take unpaid leave.
According to both the ACLU and Wallingford officials, Chief Douglas Dortenzio had an unwritten policy of no light duty for police officers. Police officers who are limited by an on-the-job injury can file for workers’ compensation benefits. Officers limited by injuries or conditions not related to work can exhaust vacation or sick time and then take unpaid leave.
The ACLU said these types of policies have a disparate impact on women during pregnancy, and that they violate Connecticut’s Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to offer workplace accommodations. The Connecticut statute states that it is a discriminatory practice for an employer "to fail or refuse to make a reasonable effort to transfer a pregnant employee to any suitable temporary position which may be available."
Balcastro filed a pregancy discrimination charge filed with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in June 2012. In the meantime, Wallingford officials supported the police chief’s policy. To allow light duty assignements, said Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., would drive up costs in the police department, creating, for example the need to pay other officers more overtime. "You have to be able to perform essential functions of the job," Dickinson said at the late March Town Council meeting where elected officials voted to authorize settlement talks.
At that time, Dickinson called the settlment vote a "business decision of what costs more, pending litigation or settling a complaint."
ACLU officials acknowledged that the settlement does not require the Wallingford Police Department to change its policies regarding light duty assignments.
"If [Balcastro] had returned to work after she had the baby, we would have pursued a change in policy as an equitable remedy," said Sandra Staub, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut. She added: "We don’t see how a policy of no light duty can be reconciled with state law that requires an employer to make a reasonable effort to transfer a pregnant employee to any suitable temporary position."•