Pregnancy Discrimination Case Heard by Supreme Court

 

 

 

 

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by Aamir Mansoor, JD, EJC Law Clerk

This week, the Supreme Court heard a case involving an issue that affects countless workers in D.C. and across the nation.  The case asks important questions like: What workplace accommodations do pregnant workers have a right to?  And, what constitutes pregnancy discrimination in the workplace?

The case at issue, Young v. UPS, involves a woman who says her employer discriminated against her because she was pregnant.  Peggy Young was a part-time delivery truck driver for UPS when she became pregnant.  Young’s job description required that she be able to lift 70 pounds at a time.  Young’s doctor and midwife provided her with notes that recommended she not lift more than 20 pounds at a time.  Based on this note, Young requested that her load be lightened.  UPS policy allowed for workers who were (1) injured on the job, (2) disabled under the terms of the Americans With Disability Act (“ADA”), or (3) lost their driving credentials, to work “light duty” assignments.  UPS rejected Young’s request because pregnancy did not fit into any of these three categories.  Instead, UPS put Young on unpaid leave for the duration of her pregnancy.

The main issue raised is whether UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) in its treatment of Young.  The PDA, passed in 1978, was meant to strengthen employment protections for pregnant women under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  The PDA prevents employers from discriminating based on pregnancy.  It states that pregnant woman should be treated no differently than other employees.  UPS claimed that its policy that determines who is eligible for “light duty” assignments is “pregnancy-neutral,” and that it meets the PDA requirement by treating pregnant women the same way it treats employees injured outside of work.  Young argued that that the PDA requires employers to offer benefits to pregnant women if those benefits are available to other employees “similar in their ability or inability to work.”  She believed that her pregnancy made her similar in her ability to work to the three categories of workers outlined in UPS’s “light duty” assignments policy, and therefore she should be eligible for “light duty” assignments.

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The lower courts ruled in favor of UPS, and were receptive to its claim that this policy was governed by a collective bargaining agreement that Young did not qualify for.  The Fourth Circuit rejected the reasoning in the 1996 decision of Ensley-Gains v. Runyon, where the Sixth Circuit held that that the PDA was a significant advance in mandated workplace accommodations.  Instead it relied on the 1994 Seventh Circuit decision in Troupe v. May Dept. Stores Co., which took a more “pregnancy-neutral” approach to the PDA, to support its decision for UPS.

The Supreme Court’s decision to take on this is case is slightly unusual because it comes at a time where other branches of the government are already working to resolve the issue.  The U.S. Solicitor General filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to pass on the case stating that the EEOC is already working to clarify issues relating to pregnancy, the PDA, and the ADA.  Congress, with the support of President Obama, is also seeking to clarify these issues with the already proposed Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (“PWFA”).  The PWFA, as it stands now, would employ the same “reasonable accommodations” standard for pregnant workers as the ADA currently does for disabled workers.

Dozens of pregnant workers have visited EJC’s Workers’ Rights Clinics over the years with pregnancy discrimination issues.  The Supreme Court’s ruling on this case will have an effect on the ways the EJC can help pregnant workers that visit our clinics.  Likely to be split decision, the EJC will be paying close attention to how the Supreme Court rules on this case.