California Female Prison Guards Sue Employer Over Denied Pregnancy Accommodations

In a protracted and contentious legal battle, a substantial number of female prison guards in California are currently engaged in a fight for their rights against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). At the heart of their contention is the denial of reasonable accommodations or lighter duties during pregnancy without facing demotions or pay cuts.

One such individual is Lia McKeown, who has dedicated 16 years of her life to working at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, a medium security male prison for elderly and chronically ill inmates. As a correctional officer, McKeown states that she has endured punches, kicks, and even had feces thrown at her as part of her job. However, she never expected to face such treatment while pregnant.

It was during McKeown’s second pregnancy that she became aware of a policy change. She recalls, “There was no accommodation, there was no putting you anywhere. You would have to kind of basically figure out a way to go hide yourself.”

In 2015, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation replaced a pregnancy accommodation policy that previously allowed pregnant staff to take on lighter duties during pregnancy. McKeown, undeterred, continued to work 16-hour shifts while carrying a 15-pound work belt around her waist. To minimize contact with inmates, she transitioned to the prison’s night shift, also known as first watch.

However, in 2018, during McKeown’s third pregnancy, she was asked to perform an emergency cell entry and search an inmate’s cell. While moving a heavy locker, commonly used by inmates to hide drugs, she experienced a sharp pain. She explains, “I thought I just kind of tweaked my back. But it ended up, I ended up miscarrying.”

McKeown is now one of nearly 300 women who have become 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.

Another plaintiff in the lawsuit, Melissa Glaude, recounts being asked to perform an emergency cell entry while 24 weeks pregnant. Refusing the risky task, she was forced onto disability leave, receiving only half of her pay. Glaude states, “I mean, I got to bring my babies home, but not everybody did.”

Representing the women, attorney Arnold Peter argues that CDCR violated state law, highlighting that other prison systems and law enforcement agencies provide accommodations for pregnant officers. The lawsuit outlines three options the pregnant staff had under CDCR’s new policy: remain in their current position, waive any medical restrictions and confirm their ability to perform essential job functions, accept a demotion resulting in reduced pay and loss of benefits, or take a combination of paid and unpaid leave as an accommodation.

According to Cal-HR data, between 2017 and 2021, approximately 15 to 16 percent of CDCR’s correctional officers have been women. CDCR’s website claims that they have been hiring women at a higher rate than the national average since the 1970s, when the first female correctional officers were hired.

Additionally, the California Civil Rights Department, a state agency responsible for protecting workers from discrimination, has also filed a separate lawsuit against CDCR for the same 2015 policy.

In response to the lawsuits and a bill addressing the issue, CDCR reverted to its pre-2015 policy in 2020. However, plaintiffs like McKeown argue that the damage has already been done. McKeown reveals that she also suffered a work-related back injury during her fourth pregnancy when an inmate physically attacked her and another officer during an emergency cell entry. This injury rendered her unable to work for three years.

Although CDCR declined an interview request, they indicated that a settlement to the class-action lawsuit is currently underway. A spokesperson for CDCR stated, “Negotiation has led to an expected resolution to the two class-action cases, pending court approval. The proposed settlement will provide significant benefits to members of the settlement class and acknowledges that the underlying, disputed policies have ended. We are pleased to have reached this point because the proposed settlement will provide a fair resolution for all parties. We are working closely with the other parties to finalize the details and obtain court approval of the settlement.”

Attorney Arnold Peter reveals that they sought intervention from Governor Newsom’s office, as California prisons fall under his purview, but to no avail. Newsom’s office informed the Investigative Unit that they typically refrain from involvement in matters involving active litigation.

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

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