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Advantage Serena: Employment Issues Raised by Tennis Star’s Return to Work

Serena Williams is one of the greatest athletes of all time–man or woman–period. In her 25-year professional career, she has dominated on the tennis court by winning nearly 40 major titles (singles and doubles). Roger Federer, a tennis legend in his own right, has remarked that Williams is “one of the greatest, if not the greatest, tennis players of all time.”

Source; KeithBishop / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty

Moreover, Williams is considered by many to be a positive role model for young people, particularly girls. As the tennis star herself said in a 2015 interview, “I’ve been like this my whole life, and I embrace me and I love how I look. I love that I am a full woman, and I’m strong and I’m powerful and I’m beautiful at the same time. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Williams gave birth to her first daughter in September 2017. Immediately afterwards, she experienced several health complications and almost died. One dangerous obstacle was a pulmonary embolism, which is “a blockage in one of the pulmonary arteries in [the] lungs,” that “[i]n most cases . . . is caused by blood clots that travel to the lungs from the legs or, rarely, other parts of the body.”

World Ranking Plummets During Pregnancy

Williams returned to tennis in March 2018 with a win against Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan at the Indian Wells BNP Paribas Open. Though Williams isn’t an “employee” as that term is legally and commonly understood, the resumption of her career has raised employment issues common to many workplaces.

For example, when Williams took leave from tennis in April 2017, she was ranked No. 1 in the world. Less than six months later, however, her ranking dropped all the way down to No. 451.

Like many women who return to work after having children, Williams reentered the workforce in a less secure position than when she began her leave of absence (ranking affects how players are seeded in tournaments). Her “dramatic drop in standing” prompted a discussion about the fairness of the Women’s Tennis Association’s maternity leave policies.

Williams has since rebounded to a No. 26 ranking and is currently competing in the U.S. Open (on Tuesday night, she advanced with a solid 6-4, 6-3 quarterfinal win over Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic).

Banned from Wearing Life-Saving Catsuit

Before the recent French Open, Williams was told she could not wear a “Wakanda-inspired catsuit” she maintains helps to prevent blood clots. The French Open introduced a dress code for this year’s tournament–which Williams has won three times–because, according to French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli, “One must respect the game and the place.”

Of course, in an American workplace, banning Williams’ catsuit would not be so cut-and-dried. Employers may have policies requiring employees to dress in appropriate business attire. The policies may be unlawful, however, if they include different dress or grooming standards for men and women or are based on gender stereotypes.

Further, an employer could not simply disregard the connection between Williams’ health issues and her catsuit. State and federal laws require that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee’s known disabilities and medical conditions, unless doing so would present an undue hardship. Here is what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has to say about reasonable accommodations and undue hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

In general, an accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.  There are three categories of “reasonable accommodations”:

(i) modifications or adjustments to a job application process that enable a qualified applicant with a disability to be considered for the position [the] qualified applicant desires; or

(ii) modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or to the manner or circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed, that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of that position; or

(iii) modifications or adjustments that enable a covered entity’s employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its other similarly situated employees without disabilities.

In a typical workplace, assuming Williams’ employer was aware of her potential to develop blood clots, the two parties would be required to engage in a timely, good-faith interactive process to determine which accommodations might be reasonable and effective.