HR Management & Compliance

Supreme Court clarifies employer obligations related to pregnant workers

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Young v. United Parcel Service means employers need to think twice before treating pregnant employees under job restrictions differently than they treat nonpregnant employees who are similarly unable to perform their jobs temporarily.

In a 6-3 ruling handed down March 25, the Court reached for middle ground between interpretations of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) offered by both parties as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). By sending the case back to the lower court, the justices revived the employee’s claim that her treatment violated the PDA.

“The Court has decided that an employer’s light-duty policy can be challenged as intentional sex discrimination if the policy provides light duty to a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers,” Richard L. Rainey, an attorney with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP, in Charlotte, North Carolina, said after the ruling. “Employers that have policies that, for example, limit light duty to only employees injured on the job will need to carefully assess those policies and their impact on the workforce to determine if they are now legal.”

Rainey, who is the editor of North Carolina Employment Law Letter, also reminds employers that while pregnancy is not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 2008 amendments to the ADA provide that conditions related to pregnancy can be disabilities even though they’re temporary. Therefore, pregnancy-related conditions may well require employers to explore reasonable accommodations under the ADA. Examples of such conditions include gestational diabetes, pregnancy-related anemia, pregnancy-related sciatica, and pregnancy-related carpal tunnel syndrome.

Kevin McCormick, an attorney with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, L.L.P., in Baltimore, Maryland, and the editor of Maryland Employment Law Letter, says most employers have now begun allowing accommodations for pregnant employees under restrictions instead of requiring them to be off work.

In the Young case, UPS was granted summary judgment (a ruling in its favor without a trial) in district court, and that decision was affirmed by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the case, Peggy Young, a pregnant part-time driver for UPS, requested a light-duty assignment because her doctor had restricted her to lifting less than 20 pounds. Because the company required drivers to be able to lift up to 70 pounds, the employer told her she couldn’t perform her job while she was pregnant.

The company had a policy allowing some workers—those temporarily disabled because of on-the-job injuries, those with conditions covered under the ADA, and those who had lost driving privileges—to do light-duty work, but employees under restrictions because of pregnancy weren’t included in the light-duty policy. Young sued, claiming the company’s action was a violation of the PDA.

Since the case was filed, UPS has changed its policy but maintains that the policy in force at the time the suit was filed was not discriminatory.

“UPS is pleased that the Supreme Court rejected the argument that UPS’s pregnancy-neutral policy was inherently discriminatory,” Susan Rosenberg, UPS’s public relations director, said after the ruling. “Instead, the Supreme Court adopted a new standard for evaluating pregnancy discrimination claims without ruling for either party and sent the case back to the lower courts for further consideration under the new standard. We are confident that those courts will find that UPS did not discriminate against Ms. Young under this newly announced standard.”

Rosenberg also explained that in October 2014, “reflective of workplace policy changes and the general work environment, UPS elected to voluntarily change its approach to pregnancy accommodations.” She said the new policy that went into effect in January “serves to strengthen UPS’s commitments to supporting women in the workplace and to treating all workers fairly.”

“UPS provides industry-leading benefits to both its full-time and part-time employees because our people are at the heart of our company’s success,” Rosenberg said. “We have been in business for more than 100 years and have learned that the ability to change and adapt is fundamental to our success.”

Although the Supreme Court’s ruling revives Young’s claim, it doesn’t completely accept her interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said: “The problem with Young’s approach is that it proves too much. It seems to say that the statute grants pregnant workers a ‘most-favored-nation’ status. As long as an employer provides one or two workers with an accommodation . . . then it must provide similar accommodations to all pregnant workers (with comparable physical limitations), irrespective of the nature of their jobs, the employer’s need to keep them working, their ages, or any other criteria.”

The opinion notes that the justices agree with UPS to some extent. “We doubt that Congress intended to grant pregnant workers an unconditional most-favored-nation status,” the opinion says. “The language of the statute does not require that unqualified reading.”

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion taking the majority to task. “Faced with two conceivable readings of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Court chooses neither,” he wrote. “It crafts instead a new law that is splendidly unconnected with the text and even the legislative history of the Act. To ‘treat’ pregnant workers ‘the same . . . as other persons,’ we are told, means refraining from adopting policies that impose ‘significant burden[s]’ upon pregnant women without ‘sufficiently strong’ justifications. . . . Where do the ‘significant burden’ and ‘sufficiently strong justification’ requirements come from? Inventiveness posing as scholarship—which gives us an interpretation that is as dubious in principle as it is senseless in practice.”