Young vs. UPS: Must employers make accommodations for pregnant employees?

December 3, 2014

Working motherToday the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Young vs. United Parcel Service, a case that examines the scope of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, or PDA. Simply put, the Court will be considering whether employers need to make adjustments for pregnant employees.

It’s an important issue not just for women who work and could become pregnant but also for employers as almost half of the American workforce is now made up of women and 75 percent of female workers get pregnant at least once over the course of their careers.

Peggy Young was working for UPS as a parcel sorter seven years ago when she became pregnant and was told by her doctor not to lift anything weighing more than 20 lbs. Since this was sometimes required of her current position, Young asked for a light-duty assignment for the duration of her pregnancy. UPS refused.

Young eventually went on unpaid leave and lost her health insurance benefits before giving birth. She eventually sued UPS for allegedly violating the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which holds that pregnant workers must be treated the same as all other workers who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

At the time, UPS had a policy allowing light-duty assignments for workers in three situations: the worker had been injured on the job, the worker had a federally-recognized disability or the worker had lost his or her commercial driver’s license. Pregnancy was not a recognized impairment.

Young argued that because UPS made accommodations for these others employees, she should have been afforded a light-duty assignment because of her lift restrictions during her pregnancy. However, a trial court disagreed and a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

These courts held that UPS’s policy was not discriminatory against Young for two reasons: The policy did not treat pregnant women differently from other workers (for example, they could still be afforded a light-duty assignment after being injured on the job); and Young was not “similar in [her] ability or inability to work” as workers who were given light-duty assignments, as a PDA protection would require.

Since the case was filed, a couple of significant developments have been made. First, UPS changed its policy and now allows pregnant workers to qualify for light-duty assignments. Second, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued enforcement guidance this summer stating that the PDA does require employers to offer pregnant women light duty if they do so for other employees.

The EEOC also filed an amicus brief on behalf of Young, along with many other prominent advocates from left-wing women’s rights groups to right-wing anti-abortion groups. But that isn’t to say the Supreme Court will listen.

In his analysis of the case for the Huffington Post, attorney and author Tom Spiggle projects that the Justices could go either way in the case, but any decision could have a far-reaching affect on employment law and pregnancy discrimination claims, in particular.

Spiggle points out that the decision won’t be based on whether the Justices personally think that employers should provide accommodations for their pregnant employees; the question is whether the PDA, as it currently stands, requires them to do so.

However, Spiggle says one or more of the Justices may still take the opportunity to provide broader commentary on the issue of pregnancy discrimination, which will only gain importance in coming years as the amalgamation of women in the workforce continues.

In fact, in her article for Slate, attorney Gillian Thomas reports that a recent study by the National Partnership for Women & Families found that at least 250,000 women each year find themselves in a similar situation as Peggy Young after having their accommodation requests denied. And many more of them are firing back with pregnancy discrimination suits, often with the EEOC’s help.

Thomas says there are currently numerous employers — large and small — who don’t make adjustments for pregnant employees. These employers (and their attorneys) should be sure to listen closely to the decision in Young vs. UPS to make sure their policies and practices adhere to the law.