HR Update: Pregnant Worker Accommodation Protections Addressed By U.S. Supreme Court

On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a former employee of United Parcel Service (UPS) who was faced with the choice to either continue working her labor-intensive job during pregnancy or take unpaid leave. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that the employee should be given the opportunity to prove that UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) by not giving her the same light-duty accommodation that was given to other UPS employees who were considered injured or disabled.

The Supreme Court’s decision establishes a legal framework for this type of pregnancy discrimination case. Due to this ruling, it may be easier for employees to succeed on claims that their employers violated the PDA by failing to accommodate them. To help limit liability under the PDA, employers should review their employment practices and policies regarding accommodations to make sure pregnant workers are treated the same as other workers with similar restrictions.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits a covered employer (15 or more employees) from discriminating against any individual with respect to the terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of the individual’s sex. In 1978, Congress added the PDA to Title VII. The PDA has two clauses:

  • The first clause clarifies that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.
  • The second clause requires that women affected by pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition be treated the same for all employment-related purposes as “other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.

Factual Background

The employee, Peggy Young, worked as a part-time driver for UPS. When Young became pregnant in 2006, her doctor advised that she should not lift more than 20 pounds. UPS, however, required drivers like Young to be able to lift up to 70 pounds. When Young presented UPS with her doctor’s note, she was told that she could not work while under a lifting restriction. Young consequently stayed home without pay during most of the time she was pregnant and eventually lost her employee medical coverage.

Young sued UPS, alleging that her employer violated the PDA’s second clause because it had a light-duty policy for other types of workers, but not for pregnant workers.

Under its light-duty policy, UPS accommodated workers who were injured on the job, those suffering from disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and those who had lost their Department of Transportation (DOT) certifications. According to UPS, because Young did not fall within one of these three categories, it treated her the same as it would treat other relevant persons and therefore did not discriminate against her based on pregnancy.

Legal Decision

The district court granted UPS’ motion for summary judgment, concluding that those who Young compared herself to—those falling under the on-the-job, DOT and ADA categories—were not similarly situated groups of employees. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision.

The Supreme Court vacated the 4th Circuit’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Supreme Court ruled that Young created a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situations were similar to hers. Thus, the Supreme Court gave Young another chance to show that UPS violated the PDA when it failed to accommodate her light-duty request.

The Supreme Court also outlined the framework that applies in this type of disparate treatment case under the PDA. Under this framework, an individual alleging pregnancy discrimination may establish a case by showing that:

  • She was pregnant at the relevant time;
  • Her employer did not accommodate her; and
  • Her employer did accommodate others who are similar only “in their ability or inability to work.”

According to the Supreme Court, this burden is “not onerous” for an employee. It also does not require the employee to show that she and the non-pregnant employees who were treated more favorably were similar in all non-protected ways.

The employer may justify its refusal to accommodate the employee by relying on a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason. The employee may then in turn show that the employer’s justification is a pretext for discrimination. An employee may show pretext by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers and that the employer’s reasons are not strong enough to justify the burden. A significant factor that will help prove an employee’s case is if the employer accommodates a large percentage of non-pregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers.

Impact of Decision

The Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. UPS is a victory for pregnant workers because it establishes an easier framework to prove illegal discrimination. However, many employers may have already changed their policies to allow light-duty accommodations for pregnant workers due to other recent legal developments.

  • In 2008, Congress expanded the definition of “disability” under the ADA to make it clear that physical or mental impairments that substantially limit an individual’s ability to lift, stand or bend are ADA-covered disabilities. This expanded definition, as interpreted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), requires employers to accommodate employees whose temporary lifting restrictions originate off the job.

In July 2014, the EEOC issued enforcement guidelines that cover employers’ light-duty policies for pregnant workers. According to these guidelines, if an employer provides light-duty assignments to any of its employees who are temporarily unable to perform their full duties, then similar accommodations should be made for pregnant employees who cannot perform their full duties. Although the Supreme Court decided not to take these guidelines into consideration in Young vs. UPS, employers may have reevaluated their accommodations policies based on this guidance.

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Posted on April 6, 2015, in Case Studies, Human resources and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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