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Pregnancy in the Workplace: “Pregnancy Neutral” or Pregnancy Discrimination?

December 28th, 2014 Christopher Davis

Peggy Young regularly lifted boxes weighing up to 70 pounds as a delivery truck driver for the UPS. When she became pregnant in 2006, she requested a few months of lightened loads to accommodate her pregnancy. Other UPS workers injured on the job or otherwise considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) were eligible under the collective-bargaining agreement for “light duty” work. But Young’s request was denied because she was not technically injured or disabled, so she was forced to take unpaid leave. Under both the ADA and the UPS collective-bargaining agreement, pregnancy is not considered a disability.

Young’s request for an accommodation was ultimately denied by UPS because UPS treats pregnancy like an off-site or non-work injury. UPS refused to make physician-recommended “light duty” accommodations for Young or any other pregnant women despite the fact that they made the same adjustments for most other categories of workers, including those who had lost their driver’s license.

Ms. Young brought a lawsuit alleging pregnancy discrimination based on UPS’ failure to accommodate her pregnancy while also accommodating other employees who could not work for reasons other than pregnancy.  The trial court ruled against Young.  Young appealed.  Before the appellate court, Young’s attorneys argued that the The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, passed in 1978 as a supplement to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, requires employers to treat pregnant women the same as other employees who are “similar in their ability, or inability, to work.”  According to Young’s lawyers, for this reason, UPS was required to accommodate her because they permitted other employees with workplace restrictions to work “light duty” assignments.   However, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of UPS, finding that the policy in question and the decisions interpreting it did not explicitly consider an employees’ pregnancy.

The Supreme Court recently heard oral argument by the lawyers representing both the company and the pregnancy employees, and is poised to rule in 2015.  The Court’s decision will affect the lives of millions of American women. Sixty-two percent of women who were pregnant in the last twelve months were in the labor force.  Lawyers for the employees argued that pregnant workers are the only category of worker routinely denied basic accommodations like light duty work, stools, water bottles, and bathroom breaks. They argued against the Fourth Circuit Court’s ruling in favor of UPS’ purported “pregnancy neutral” policy.

UPS’ interpretation of their own policy as “pregnancy neutral” has angered the plaintiffs, who see the issue as one of fundamental fairness. More conservative jurists have stoked the flames of this debate in the base; for instance, Judge Richard Posner, a well-regarded conservative jurist who addressed this issue in the past, ruled in favor of the employer, quipping, “Employers can treat pregnant women as badly as they treat similarly affected nonpregnant employees.” For plaintiffs’ attorneys, the unfairness involved is different; employers cannot treat pregnant women any worse than they treat similarly affected nonpregnant employees.

Senator Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania is pushing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which has gained support from President Obama, and which would address the problems presented by Young’s case. The issue of “pregnancy neutral” policies such as the UPS policy, as well as pregnancy discrimination in the workplace more generally, present complicated questions for young women in the workplace who are usually already in a physically, emotionally, and financially vulnerable position. Whether you support or oppose the UPS position, there is little debate that pregnancy discrimination poses numerous life challenges at the least opportune moment. Our firm is committed to answering the questions of those who need the assistance when it matters most.