Pregnancy-ban inquiry rocks fire department

Three D.C. cadets say they had abortions in order to keep jobs

September 01, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The District of Columbia Fire Department has begun an internal investigation into whether agency officials influenced some employees to have abortions.

The agency said yesterday that it was investigating allegations that a cadet orientation earlier this year left new emergency medical technicians with the impression that if they became pregnant during a one-year probationary period, they would lose their jobs. Acting out of such fear, three women from a class of 10 to 15 new cadets claimed they had abortions, union officials said.

"We are aware of a very serious allegation," said Alan Etter, a spokesman for the fire department.

Fire Chief Ronnie Few and the city's inspector general, Charles Maddox, were investigating.

The allegations were first reported by the Washington Times.

The main charge came from a 21-year-old cadet who said she was pregnant before the orientation.

In a private meeting with Samanthia Robinson, the interim assistant chief of operations for emergency medical services, the cadet revealed her pregnancy and was then told by Robinson that she would have to make a choice, said Kenneth Lyons, president of the local of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"She was told she had to make a choice between having a child and keeping her job," Lyons said.

Etter said Robinson chose not to comment.

After the initial allegation, the union began meeting with other cadets from the same class of new medical technicians and continued to hear the same story. In an orientation meeting with upper management officials earlier this year, Lyons said, the cadets were told that a number of actions would result in their termination.

Although no direct threats were made, the women were told that they would not be allowed extended periods of time off and that there was no "light work" for agency employees, Lyons said after conducting interviews with several of the department's workers.

Veteran firefighters have come forward with similar allegations since the union began investigating, Lyons said. "Even when we questioned female firefighters, they told us they were under the understanding that this was an agency policy."

But department and city officials insist this is not the case. "It is not department policy to use this kind of language or engage in such a discussion," Etter said.

"There is no policy that says women in the department can't get pregnant," said Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice.

If the department was implementing even an informal policy that deterred employees from starting a family, the consequences could be severe, said Marsha Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington. The employer could be held liable for discrimination, she said.

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