September 26, 2017

Officer Jennifer Panattoni subjected to pattern of discrimination and retaliation at Frankfort Police Department, forced onto unpaid leave due to pregnancy

FRANKFORT, IL – A 14-year police officer recognized for her service to the community last week filed a lawsuit against the Village of Frankfort for pregnancy discrimination and retaliation on the job at the Frankfort Police Department (FPD). The complaint was filed in federal district court in Chicago.

Officer Jennifer Panattoni has served the Frankfort Police Department and her community with distinction for more than 14 years. She is an award-winning senior patrol officer, one of the only female officers in the department and the only woman who currently works full-time patrol shifts.

“I have always wanted to be a police officer since I was a young girl. I absolutely love my job and my village. When I wake up and put on my uniform, I feel so lucky. Helping people has always been my main goal in life,” said Panattoni.

When Panattoni became pregnant in late 2015 and sought to keep working, the Frankfort Police Department responded with a pattern of discrimination and retaliation. This included refusing to provide her uniforms and protective gear that would fit her changing body, including a bullet proof vest that would keep her safe while she continued patrolling the streets; and denying her requests to carry some of her equipment in her pockets and vest so as to lessen the strain on her abdomen caused by her 25-pound duty belt. And despite a long history of allowing male and non-pregnant officers to take personal breaks from duty without having to use benefit time, the FPD refused to allow Officer Panattoni to do the same for occasional short doctor’s appointments relating to her pregnancy.

“As my pregnancy progressed, I had to worry about whether I could still button my uniform or whether my bulletproof vest would pop open in the middle of my patrol shift. Being denied the equipment I needed took my mind out of where it should have been and made it harder to do my job,” said Panattoni.

When Officer Panattoni asked to modify her job duties as her pregnancy progressed, the FPD rejected her requests and claimed that it would only grant modified-duty assignments to officers with on-the-job injuries. Even though Officer Panattoni identified plenty of available non-patrol work duties that she could perform throughout her pregnancy, such as clerical tasks, taking walk-in complaints, conducting witness interviews, and helping with crime prevention outreach, the FPD consistently refused even to discuss whether such work was available. The FPD also told Officer Panattoni that if she could not perform her job duties without any changes, she would be placed on leave.

“I was told that they didn’t want to ‘set a precedent’ and I only had to be treated the same as someone who broke their leg off-duty. I was shocked and felt betrayed. I wasn’t asking for any special treatment, just the same accommodations that other officers on the force were allowed. I wanted to work and I could have been a productive team member at the department,” said Panattoni.

This response from her superiors forced Officer Panattoni to make a hopeless choice: risk her and her child’s safety by continuing her patrols without adequate safety protection, or lose out on the essential wages that would help support her growing family.

“I was worried about my safety but also my financial security. As I got further along in my pregnancy, my uniform wouldn’t fit and I could feel my son kicking my belly up against my too-tight belt. But I also couldn’t think of draining my savings and living hand to mouth right as I was about to give birth. I didn’t want to be forced to choose between my job and my family – but that’s exactly what happened,” said Panattoni.

Ultimately, when Officer Panattoni was five months pregnant, the FPD forced her off the job and onto involuntary leave, forcing her to exhaust her paid benefit time and draw on her disability pension at half the amount of her usual pay. And since her return to work in October 2016, the FPD has singled her out for disparate treatment, ranging from threats of unwarranted discipline to denials of the equipment she needed to do her job.  

“The law is clear – employers must enter into a dialogue and provide reasonable accommodations for their pregnant employees. Instead, the Frankfort Police Department refused to contemplate even the simplest accommodations for Officer Panattoni, forced her onto leave without a paycheck because she was pregnant, , and continues a pattern of retaliation against her for asserting her rights under law,” said Amy Meek, Staff Attorney for the Women’s and Reproductive Rights Project, ACLU of Illinois.

“The actions of the Frankfort Police Department are unlawful and could have been prevented if they had adopted adequate policies and training to provide pregnant employees with reasonable accommodations that would allow them to remain productive employees and maintain a healthy pregnancy. Unfortunately, it is all too common for pregnant working women to be forced out of their jobs or face risks to their health or pregnancy because their employers deny them temporary work modifications. We hope the Village of Frankfort and its police department uses this as an opportunity to create a lasting policy for its pregnant employees, and serve as an example for others to do the same,” continued Meek.