On Wednesday March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many with its decision in Young v. United Parcel Service Inc., the Court’s first ruling on employers’ duties towards their pregnant workers in over 20 years.
The Court’s decision revived former UPS driver Peggy Young’s lawsuit against the company for being denied light-duty work while pregnant, essentially undoing a previous victory for UPS.
The facts, Young presented UPS with a doctor’s note advised that she should not lift more than twenty pounds and should not lift more than ten pounds once her pregnancy progressed to a certain stage. UPS, however, required its drivers to lift up to 70 pounds.
UPS provided temporary alternate work to employees injured on the job and accommodated disabled employees in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Under UPS’s policies, however, a pregnant employee was ineligible for light duty work due solely to pregnancy-related limitations. As such, UPS concluded Young was unable to fulfill the essential functions of her position and was ineligible for light duty work.
After filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and suing UPS for pregnancy discrimination, Young lost her case. She appealed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to address employer obligations under the PDA, specifically, whether employers that provide non-pregnant workers accommodations must accommodate pregnant workers “similar in their ability or inability to work.”
In a 6-3 vote, the Court found both UPS and Young’s interpretations of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) unpersuasive, concluded that the Court of Appeal’s analysis was flawed, and determined that it did not have sufficient evidence to make an informed determination. Despite the fact that the Court did not make any determinations, and did not completely rule in Young’s favor, this decision is still considered a major step forward for pregnant employees and a warning to employers to ensure light duty is considered for pregnant employees.
Courts must now consider the extent to which an employer’s policy treats pregnant workers less favorably than it treats non-pregnant workers who are similar in their ability or inability to work. In other words, if an employer’s policy and practice is to provide disabled employee with light duty, that accommodation must also be considered for pregnant employees – ensuring uniformity and equal treatment for all employees.
The Supreme Court also took a hard stance against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) guideline concerning the application of Title VII and the ADA to pregnant employees. The Court critiqued the EEOC’s guidelines as lacking “consistency,” and “thoroughness” of “consideration” necessary to “give it power to persuade,” and it is inconsistent with positions long advocated by the Government. The EEOC has already expressed that it “will make necessary changes to the guidance in accordance with the decision.”
The Court’s negative treatment of the EEOC guideline is helpful for employers because it will force the EEOC to make its guidelines consistent with earlier decisions, which will ideally result in clear directives for employers to follow with respect to pregnant employees.
The Court’s decision to revive Young’s lawsuit is consistent with recent changes in the law and developments in work environments that are expanding protections for pregnant employees. In fact, UPS told the Supreme Court in a 2014 oral argument that starting in January 2015 it was voluntarily making temporary light duty available to pregnant workers with medically certified restrictions, just as it already does for workers with on-the-job injuries.
Similarly, recent changes to California’s Pregnancy Disability Leave regulations, and 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act have expanded protections for pregnant women in the workplace.
Employers should keep their fingers on the pulse of the rapidly developing legal landscape of increased protections for pregnant employees, and be engaged in discussions with their pregnant employees regarding accommodations as early as possible, not waiting until the last trimester to discuss possible accommodations and leave.