U.S. Supreme Court Considers Pregnant Employees’ Rights to Accommodation

US Supreme CourtIn 2006, a female United Parcel Service (UPS) driver named Peggy Young became pregnant with her first child. On her doctor’s orders, she was not to lift more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy. Because Peggy’s shifts usually involved delivering letters and small packages, it didn’t seem like the restriction would have a huge impact on her job. But when Peggy told her supervisor about the 20-pound restriction, she was told that heavy lifting was an essential part of her job and that she couldn’t be accommodated. Peggy was immediately placed on unpaid leave and lost her medical benefits for the remainder of her pregnancy.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday, December 3, as to whether UPS’s failure to accommodate Young was a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978. The PDA is a federal law that prohibits employers of a certain size (those with 15 or more employees) from discriminating against pregnant employees. However, unlike other federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the PDA does not impose an affirmative duty on employers to accommodate pregnant employees. The PDA requires only that employers treat pregnant employees the same as employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

This quoted text from the PDA is what’s largely at issue in the Young v. UPS case. According to Young, UPS was obligated to treat her in the same manner that it treated other employees who were temporarily unable to perform certain duties, such as heavy lifting. UPS routinely offered light-duty work to those who suffered on-the-job injuries or who qualified as disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Pregnancy does not qualify as a disability under the ADA). By contrast, UPS argued that its policy was pregnancy-neutral, which is all that the PDA requires. UPS’s policy did not single out pregnant women for less favorable treatment, but it also didn’t single out pregnant women for more favorable treatment. Two lower federal courts in Maryland agreed with UPS.

In recent years, several states have stepped in to offer additional protections to pregnant employees, including the right to light-duty assignments. In response to this increasing trend to accommodate pregnant employees, private employers have been more willing to follow suit, even if they aren’t required to by law. In fact, UPS recently announced that beginning January 1, 2015, it will institute a new policy that allows pregnant women to be reassigned to light-duty work.

Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision could have a significant impact on pregnant employees nationwide. If the court sides with Young, all employers subject to the PDA will be required to offer light-duty assignments to pregnant women if those assignments are available to non-pregnant employees. The Court’s decision is scheduled to come out sometime next year.