California female prison guards are engaged in a legal dispute with their employer over denied accommodations related to pregnancy rights

In an extensive legal battle, numerous female prison guards in California are challenging the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for their rights. Their primary concern revolves around the denial of reasonable accommodations or lighter duties during pregnancy, without facing demotions or reductions in pay.

Lia McKeown, who has served for 16 years at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, a medium-security male prison for elderly and chronically ill inmates, shares her experience. As a correctional officer, McKeown endured physical assaults such as punches, kicks, and even having feces thrown at her as part of her job duties. However, she never anticipated such treatment while pregnant.

McKeown recalls being informed of a policy change during her second pregnancy, which removed the previous accommodation policy allowing pregnant staff to take on lighter duties. Consequently, she found herself without any accommodation options and had to navigate her pregnancy without support.

Despite her challenging circumstances, McKeown continued to work long shifts, carrying a heavy work belt around her waist while pregnant. To minimize contact with inmates, she transitioned to the night shift.

However, in 2018, during her subsequent pregnancy, McKeown was asked to perform a physically demanding task involving an emergency cell entry and search. While moving a heavy locker, a common hiding place for drugs, she experienced a sharp pain. Despite initially thinking it was a minor injury, she later discovered she had miscarried.

McKeown and nearly 300 other women are now plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against CDCR alleging discrimination, retaliation, and the denial of pregnancy disability rights. Multiple correctional officers claim they suffered miscarriages and lost wages due to the abrupt change in the policy.

Melissa Glaude, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, recounts being asked to perform an emergency cell entry while 24 weeks pregnant. Refusing the risky task, she says she was forced onto disability leave, receiving only half of her pay.

“I mean, I got to bring my babies home, but not everybody did,” said Glaude.

Attorney Arnold Peter is representing the women. He argues CDCR violated state law, emphasizing that other prison systems and law enforcement agencies provide accommodations for pregnant officers.

According to the lawsuit, under CDCR’s new policy pregnant staff had three choices: 

  • Stay in their current position, waive any medical restrictions, confirm their ability to perform each and every essential job function and assume liability for any injury caused by their decision to ignore medical restrictions;
  • Accept a demotion, resulting in reduced pay, loss of peace officer status, loss of seniority, loss of benefits and loss of right to bid for shifts.
  • Or take a combination of paid and unpaid leave as an accommodation.

According to Cal-HR data, since 2017 between 15 to 16 percent of CDCR’s correctional officers have been women. CDCR’s website shows the first female correctional officers were hired in the 1970’s and they claim to currently hire women at a higher rate than the national average.

The California Civil Rights Department, a state entity responsible for safeguarding workers from discrimination, has filed a separate lawsuit against CDCR over the 2015 policy.

In response to lawsuits and legislative efforts, CDCR reverted to its pre-2015 policy in 2020. However, plaintiffs like McKeown argue that the harm has already been done. McKeown reveals that she suffered a back injury during her fourth pregnancy due to a work-related incident. She was physically assaulted by an inmate during an emergency cell entry, rendering her unable to work for three years.

While CDCR declined to provide an interview, they indicated that a settlement for the class-action lawsuits is in progress.

The spokesperson for CDCR stated, “Negotiations have led to an anticipated resolution for the two class action cases, pending court approval. The proposed settlement will offer substantial benefits to members of the settlement class and acknowledges the cessation of the disputed policies. We are pleased to have reached this stage, as the proposed settlement will ensure a fair resolution for all parties. We are collaborating closely with other parties to finalize the specifics and obtain court approval of the settlement.”

Attorney Arnold Peter mentioned seeking intervention from Governor Newsom’s office, as California prisons fall under his jurisdiction, but without success. Newsom’s office clarified that they typically refrain from involvement in matters under active litigation.

The lawsuit, which has a statute of limitations expiring in March, has expanded to encompass over 1,000 women who were pregnant between 2015 and 2020.

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