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Pregnant firefighter claims discrimination

In a dispute over union contract work and vacation rules, the veteran lieutenant remains on forced sick leave.

By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 20, 2003


SEMINOLE -- A veteran fire lieutenant who is expecting her first child this summer has charged the department with discrimination after putting her on leave against her wishes.

Hope Hengstenberg's doctor says she can work and Chief Dan Graves granted her request for alternative duty, but when Hengstenberg filed a grievance for what she claimed was an unfair accrual rate in her sick and vacation leave, Graves sent her home.

Since February, Hengstenberg has been spending sick days she planned to use after she delivered her baby in July. The city has reversed its earlier decisions and settled her original grievances but won't allow her to work.

"It's very apparent to me that this was a retaliation," union president Lt. Rick Koda recently told the city's personnel advisory board.

City officials deny the accusation, saying they simply are following the language of the collective bargaining agreement, the contract between the city and the fire union.

"I think that she would be happy to come in and work, but she just doesn't want to work under the terms of the contract and I just can't treat her special," Graves said.

Hengstenberg, one of two female Seminole firefighters, is the department's first pregnant firefighter. The department does not have a maternity policy but is treating the pregnancy the same as an off-the-job injury or illness.

Hengstenberg, 42, did not want to be interviewed and deferred all questions to union leaders.

A 22-year Seminole Fire Rescue employee, she became pregnant last fall through in vitro fertilization. She used a month of sick leave in November. She informed Graves about her plans for having a child earlier in the year, asking permission for a temporary alternative assignment during her pregnancy if the need arose.

In a memo from May 7, 2002, Graves said if Hengstenberg provided a note from her doctor saying she was unable to function as a firefighter, she would be granted alternative duty until she could no longer fulfill a 40-hour work schedule.

On Nov. 27, Dr. Sandy B. Goodman wrote: "Patient may return to regular duty in one week without lifting, straining, strenuous activity."

Hengstenberg returned to work Dec. 9 and was assigned to a fire inspector position. A month later, she filed two grievances: One dealt with a discrepancy on her timecard and another focused on an accrual rate for vacation and sick leave.

The city eventually settled her first grievance, reinstating two of her vacation days.

The second grievance boiled down to an interpretation of an article in the bargaining agreement.

Seminole firefighters and paramedics work 56-hour weeks instead of the traditional 40-hour schedule. The article explaining alternative duty says if a 56-hour employee is placed on a 40-hour schedule, the employee's vacation and sick leave accrual will be adjusted to a lower rate.

But it also says there shall be no change in the way leave is accrued for 56- or 40-hour employees on alternative duty if the employee works a typical work schedule.

Like other firefighters who have gone on alternative duty, Hengstenberg worked 40 hours and spent 13 available sick hours to make up the difference in pay for a 53-hour week. The remaining three hours are generally overtime so the employee is not compensated for that time.

"If I am still a 56-hour employee on temporary assignment, my leave accrual should remain at a 56-hour accrual rate," she wrote in a letter of grievance dated Jan. 31.

"There is no evidence that any employee in the past has had his/her vacation and sick leave accrual converted to a 40-hour rate for the duration of an alternative duty assignment," the letter continued.

And that may be the case, both Graves and Edmunds admitted.

Lt. Richard Schomp, union treasurer, said the accrual rate was never lowered for the handful of employees who have worked alternative duty shifts.

During the grievance process, Graves told Hengstenberg since she was not satisfied with the contract language he was putting her on sick leave until her doctor cleared her for unrestricted duty. But Graves also granted her request and restored her accrual rate to a 56-hour employee starting from the first day of her temporary assignment.

The city's personnel advisory board heard Hengstenberg's case April 10. Union leaders hoped the board would reinstate Hengstenberg, but members said they could not consider issues pertaining to Hengstenberg's alternative duty status.

"She's going to exhaust her sick account," said Koda, union president.

If that happens, Edmunds said, the contract allows other employees to donate sick leave to Hengstenberg. "That's a tremendous benefit,' he said.

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