Pregnant Employees must be granted reasonable accommodations when the employer has provided similar accommodations to other individuals with similar limitations.
The United States Supreme Court ruling is a victory for Peggy Young, a former driver for UPS who claimed the package company violated her rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). She will now have a chance to prove her case in a lower court where she had previously lost. The ruling further provides support for women who are facing discrimination due to pregnancy.
When Young became pregnant in 2006, Peggy Young’s doctor told her not to lift anything heavier than 20 pounds for the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy. When she requested a reasonable accommodation from her boss, she was denied her request for light duty. Instead, UPS placed her on unpaid leave and cancelled her health benefits. She was told that UPS only provided accommodations to three categories of workers: those who had been injured on the job, those who lost their Department of Transportation certifications, and those who have a disability as defined by the Americans with Disability Act. Because pregnancy is not a generally a disability under federal law, UPS refused to provide the pregnant worker any accommodation. She sued UPS for discrimination.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires employers to accommodate pregnant women who have work restrictions. While not in issue in this case, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination also requires accommodations for pregnant employees.
Young claimed that UPS’s failure to accommodate pregnant women violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, a federal law providing that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same” as other employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work”. Young argued that because UPS did offer light accommodation to some employees, it must offer her the same accommodation.
UPS maintained that the company’s policy complied with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and that it was a pregnancy neutral policy.
Young lost the case in federal district court which ruled in favor of UPS on a summary judgment motion. Then she appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit which affirmed the previous decision, saying that UPS did not violate the Pregnancy Discrimination Action because its light duty policy is pregnancy-blind: it treats pregnant and non-pregnant workers the same and accommodates only those who fall within the three categories of workers identified.
After losing her appeal, Young asked the Supreme Court to decide whether UPS acted unlawfully. The question was whether the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires companies to offer light-duty options to pregnant workers if they already do so for non-pregnant workers in who are “similar in their ability to or inability to work.”
According to the Court, a middle ground approach was necessary. The problem with Young’s approach was that it argued that the statue granted pregnant workers a “most-favored-nation” status. The Court agreed with UPS in: “ We doubt that Congress intended (in passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act) to grant pregnant workers an unconditional most-favored-nation status.” So a pregnant worker is not necessarily entitled to the same accommodations as an individual who is disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Court further held that the EEOC position in this issue is ambiguous and the Court therefore did not rely upon it in reaching its determination. Before Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the EEOC issued guidance that “disabilities caused or contributed to by pregnancy….are, for all job-related purposes, temporary disabilities” and that “the availability of….benefits and privileges…shall be applied to disability due to pregnancy or childbirth on the same terms and conditions as they are applied to other temporary disabilities”. After the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, the EEOC issued further guidance, stating that “[i]f other employees temporarily unable to lift are relieved of these functions, pregnant employees also unable to lift must be temporarily relieved of the function.” This post-Act guidance, according to the Court, simply tells employers to treat pregnancy related disabilities like nonpregnancy-related disabilities, without clarifying how that instruction should be implemented when an employer does not treat all nonpregnancy related disabilities alike. In July 2014 the EEOC promulgated an additional guideline apparently designed to address that ambiguity. That guideline says that “[a]n employer may not refuse to treat a pregnant worker the same as other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work by relying on a policy that makes distinctions based on the source of an employee’s limitations (e.g., a policy of providing light duty only to workers injured on the job). However, according to the Court, first “the EEOC’s current guidelines take a position about which the EEOC’s previous guidelines were silent” and second, “that position is inconsistent with positions for which the Government has long advocated.”
The Court vacated the 2013 ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court held that a plaintiff may reach a jury on this issue by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather—when considered along with the burden imposed—give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination. Additionally, a plaintiff can create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a significant burden exists by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers. That means that a pregnant worker could prevail in a claim of pregnancy discrimination if she can show that the employer accommodates most non-pregnant employees who have a similar restriction to that of the pregnant worker.
The Court also found that Young produced evidence that UPS has multiple policies that accommodate nonpregnant employees with lifting restrictions which suggests that its reasons for failing to accommodate pregnant employees with lifting restrictions are not sufficiently strong to create an undue burden in providing the accommodation. Importantly, an employer may not defeat a claim by simply arguing that there is a cost associated with providing the accommodation.
You can read this Supreme’s Court decision here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/12-1226_k5fl.pdf
Meanwhile states and cities are enacting their own laws requiring employers to accommodate pregnant workers. In 2014, New Jersey passed S2995/A4486. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s needs related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, including recovery from childbirth, absent undue hardship. The New Jersey Law against Discrimination and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act also protect individuals from pregnancy discrimination. The City of Philadelphia passed an ordinance in 2014 that requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees for needs related to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition, so long as such accommodations will not cause an undue hardship to the employer. Phila. Code § 9-1128.
If you are pregnant and you have questions about your rights at your workplace, please call us for a free and confidential consultation at (856) 685-7420