Paramedic says fire department discriminated against her when she got pregnant

Lawsuit alleges woman who took maternity leave subjected to harassment, demotion

A San Francisco Fire Department paramedic filed a lawsuit this week against The City for gender, pregnancy and lactation discrimination and harassment in the workplace, according to her attorney.

The lawsuit alleges that Sarah Perata, an Emergency Medical Services captain, was subjected to derogatory comments and threats of losing her job during and after her 2019 pregnancy. It also alleges the fire department violated labor laws including the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and others.

Perata alleges a superior told her it was a “bad idea” to take maternity leave after she announced her pregnancy. She was told she might not have the same position if she left, according to the lawsuit.

Federal law says employees are granted 12 weeks of “unpaid, job-protected leave” in a 12-month period. The birth of a child is one of the permitted reasons for taking time off of work.

Perata decided to take the leave regardless of her superior’s comments, and was set to be out of office from Dec. 13 to Jan. 26, and again from Feb. 11-24.

During her family leave, however, she said she was told to come in to work on numerous occasions under the threat of losing her job or being transferred. On Feb. 12, she was transferred from the Division of Training at Treasure Island to Station 49 and demoted to a role with less responsibilities. She was allegedly told to pack her things the next day, while still on leave.

After she returned to work, she was breastfeeding her newborn child. She found “there was no policy for lactating mothers” at Station 49, the legal complaint states.

Perata and other lactating mothers at Station 49 had to breastfeed “in the back of ambulances, in filthy bathrooms and in an unlocked room frequented by male employees who harassed them for engaging in lactation,” according to a press release from her attorney.

Last September, the Department of Labor reported that the SFFD did not provide proper lactation accommodations, citing a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Perata took part in the investigation and told the agency about her experiences.

The lawsuit alleges that Perata faced “an extreme campaign of harassment and retaliation” afterward, including demotions and investigations under false claims. Perata is currently on unpaid leave.

The department is facing a series of legal complaints filed in the past year regarding discrimination: one firefighter is seeking damages for homophobic and racist comments he says he has received in the workplace in a lawsuit filed in January, another paramedic filed suit for harassment based on their gender identity in February and one assistant chief says she was discriminated against after calling out racism in the department in March.

“The Fire Department has a long and sordid history of discrimination against female employees,” said Perata’s attorney, former city supervisor Angela Alioto. “Ms. Perata’s case shows that the Department still unacceptably refuses to stop discriminating against its female employees.”

A fire department spokesman was unable to comment Tuesday afternoon.

City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Cote said The City had not yet been served with the lawsuit and could not address it in detail, but noted that “The City takes equal employment issues seriously and is committed to fostering a welcoming, inclusive workplace free of discrimination based on gender or any other protected characteristic.”

This story has been updated to include additional comment.

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