Pregnant Workers Get a New Lease On Accommodations

04.07.2015

Recently, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 6 to 3 decision that a former UPS worker’s lawsuit be reinstated where she alleged that when she was pregnant, UPS unlawfully forced her to take unpaid leave rather than give her light duty work assignments as her doctor recommended.  Peggy Young became pregnant during her tenure as a UPS delivery driver and was denied light duty during her pregnancy.  UPS had a policy whereby it only provided light duty to workers injured on the job, who had a condition covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or who lost their license to drive a commercial vehicle.  Because Young did not fit into any of those categories, UPS denied her request for light duty and she was forced to take an unpaid leave of absence. 

Young sued, alleging that UPS failed to accommodate her which constituted disparate treatment under the pregnancy discrimination act.  Both the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and the lower court sided with UPS.  The Supreme Court vacated the rulings and remanded for further proceedings.  The Court identified what a female employee must claim to meet the minimum legal threshold to maintain a suit claiming she was the victim of pregnancy bias:   she must offer proof that she is in the protected class of those who are pregnant or can become pregnant;  she must allege that she asked to be accommodated in the workplace when she could not fulfill her normal job duties; she must allege that the employer refused to do so; and she must allege that the employer did actually provide an accommodation for other employees who are just as unable to temporarily perform their job duties.  Once she does that, it is up to the employer to prove that its workplace policy was not a bias against pregnant workers, but had a neutral business rationale.  Then the worker can respond and claim that the reason was a pretext for discrimination, and can show that the policy puts a significant burden on female workers, and that the policy is not sufficiently strong to justify that burden.   The Court sent the UPS case back to the lower courts to apply the new framework. 

Employers must keep in mind that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is not the only law that requires accommodation of pregnant women in the workplace.  In 2008, the Amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act expanded the scope of the legislation to require necessary accommodations to pregnant women with pregnancy-related conditions that meet the definition of disability.  The amendments did not apply in this case because they were passed after her case was filed.  In any event, it is almost always good practice to accommodate pregnant women, not only for morale and reduction in turnover and absenteeism, but also because the cost of making the wrong decision can be fatal to a business.