Katherine Lockwood received exemplary evaluations from her supervisors as a counselor and social worker at Bourne Middle School, where she nurtured the well-being of her students remotely through the pandemic, providing them with anything from individual and group counseling to crisis intervention.
But in January, Bourne Public Schools Superintendent Kerri Anne Quinlan-Zhou fired her, after a drawn out tug-of-war over whether Lockwood has the right to work from home.
Lockwood is pregnant and has a number of medical conditions that put her at high risk for a severe COVID-19 infection, including cystic fibrosis and diabetes, according to a complaint she filed last month with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Her doctors wrote letters to her employer saying she needs to work remotely this school year, but Quinlan-Zhou refused to honor the requests, the complaint said.
“I knew they wouldn’t be happy but I didn’t think it would go down like it did,” Lockwood said in a recent interview.
“I was fired because of a part of my identity,” she added, referring to her disabilities and pregnancy. “It’s a part of me that’s really important and valuable. It has made me a better person and a better professional and they are saying that part of me — that part of my identity — is worthless by firing me.”
By refusing her request to work remotely, Lockwood, who is due in May and gave birth to her first child early in the pandemic, contends Bourne violated federal and state laws that protect disabled and pregnant workers and obligate employers to honor reasonable requests for workplace accommodations. Bourne acknowledged the complaint.
Lockwood’s termination comes as districts nationwide have been struggling to balance the safety of immunocompromised employees and keeping their school buildings adequately staffed during a pandemic that has generated an acute labor shortage.
Several districts have been taking a hard line with employees. Officials express concern that approving one employee’s request for accommodations could prompt others to follow, creating a tense environment that has turned litigious.
The Boston Teachers Union sued Boston Public Schools last month in federal district court over its handling of accommodations.
Specifically, the lawsuit says Boston Public Schools discouraged certain employees from seeking accommodations, including the ability to work from home, ignored requests from other employees for months, ordered some employees back to work without any substantive discussions about accommodations, and denied requests without any meaningful interactions with employees.
Among the plaintiffs: A worker with a high-risk pregnancy whose request in February 2021 to work remotely was denied after “unreasonable delay in processing her request,” forcing her to take an unpaid family leave. Boston Public Schools also rejected her requests for a private bathroom and a ten-minute break. She eventually returned to work on June 1, but eight days later her condition deteriorated and she had to be taken away from school by ambulance.
Other legal disputes in Massachusetts over the rejection of remote-work requests include a social worker with post-traumatic stress disorder who filed an MCAD complaint and a lawsuit in state court last year against the Lexington Public Schools and a paraprofessional who survived breast cancer and filed an MCAD complaint and a federal district court lawsuit last year against the Everett Public Schools.
Firing a public school employee because of a dispute over accommodations is considered unusual, according to the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest educators’ union, which represents Bourne educators.
“It is unjust to force educators, or any working people, to choose between their job and their health,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “The pandemic is not over, and there are many people who remain at high risk for serious illness from COVID-19.“
Bourne offered limited comment on the case.
“The district is aware of the complaint, and is reviewing it with our legal counsel,” Quinlan-Zhou said in a statement. “As this is a pending legal matter involving protected personnel information, we are unable to comment further at this time.”
Lockwood’s termination also illuminates another issue that has persisted long before the COVID-19 outbreak gripped the nation: the discrimination pregnant women encounter in the workplace, which prompted Massachusetts to pass a state law five years ago guaranteeing them workplace protection.
According to a report released last summer by the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Center for Employment Equity, pregnant workers nationwide filed nearly 27,000 discrimination complaints with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state Fair Employment Practices Agencies between 2012 and 2016.
“The issue often comes down to accommodations,” said Carly McCann, a co-author of the report, noting it can involve a measure as simple as allowing for frequent breaks. “I was surprised to see pregnancy discrimination was still such a barrier for women in the workplace.”
Lockwood had initially planned to return to her office at Bourne Middle School last fall, but as the Delta variant took off last summer — the Cape was an early hot spot — Lockwood’s doctor advised her it wouldn’t be a good idea to work in person.
Aside from her disabilities, Lockwood got pregnant toward the end of the summer via in vitro fertilization, raising the stakes of staying in good health.
On Aug. 23, she e-mailed her remote-work request to the district, with a doctor’s note stating it was a medical necessity. Within hours, Quinlan-Zhou rejected it, writing the district couldn’t “accommodate working conditions where staff are not physically present in the building,” according to the MCAD complaint.
Instead, Quinlan-Zhou offered her an unpaid leave, which wasn’t economically viable for Lockwood’s family.
And so Lockwood, a one-time disability advocate, pushed back, offering to do any kind of job remotely, but Quinlan-Zhou wouldn’t budge, Lockwood said.
With options running out, Lockwood pursued a legal avenue. On Sept. 2, she told the district she was contemplating an MCAD complaint, believing the district violated her rights under the American with Disabilities Act. Eventually, the district allowed her to use paid sick time and she later secured additional days from her union’s sick bank.
After she exhausted those benefits, Lockwood tried extending her medical leave in December with unpaid time, just as the Omicron variant was escalating, and reiterated her request to work remotely.
Quinlan-Zhou, however, rejected it, noting Lockwood refused an unpaid leave in September. She gave Lockwood a choice between resignation or termination, and on Jan. 26, she formally fired her for incapacity.
“I thought I was going to be able to convince them that it made sense for me to work remotely,” Lockwood said. “I told them, ‘Use me any way you want, I don’t care.’ ... But they made their decision and it didn’t matter that I could do my job.”
The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.