Supreme Court Clarifies Employer Obligation to Accommodate Pregnant Workers

Posted 04-22-2015

In a March, 2015 decision, the US Supreme Court set up rules for determining whether an employer violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act when it refuses to accommodate a pregnant worker’s medical limitations. Bottom line: Employers better have a very strong business reason for refusing to make such an accommodation.

After Peggy Young became pregnant, her doctor told her not to lift heavy packages, which made her unable to perform her job as a delivery driver for UPS during her pregnancy. She asked for a temporary light duty assignment, but UPS said no, since its policy was to provide temporary modified work assignments only for drivers who: 1) were hurt on the job; 2) had a disability as defined by the ADA; or 3) lost their Department of Transportation certifications (for instance, for a DUI conviction.) As a result, Ms. Young went on unpaid leave, and eventually lost her employer-provided health insurance.

Ms. Young sued UPS, claiming that the PDA required UPS to provide the same accommodations to her as it does to non-pregnant employees who had similar work restrictions. On the other hand, UPS argued that as long as it provided accommodations to pregnant women in the same way it provided accommodations to others in a neutral category (such as off-the-job injuries), it could not be liable for pregnancy discrimination.

The Court rejected both interpretations. Rather, it decided that it would use a three-part balancing test. First, the employee must show that: 1) she is or was pregnant; 2) she sought an accommodation; 3) the employer did not accommodate her; and 4) the employer accommodated others who were similar in their ability or inability to work. Second, the employer must provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its refusal. And third, the employee must demonstrate that the employer’s reason is a pretext for discrimination, which she can do by showing that an employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers and that employer’s reason for not accommodating pregnant employees is not sufficiently strong, thereby giving rise to an inference of intentional discrimination. As Justice Breyer put it: “Why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?”

Many—if not most– employers already provide accommodations to pregnant women because they understand that it is in their best interest, and the best interest of their employees, to do so. (Even UPS has now changed its policy to allow accommodations for pregnant workers.) Accommodations required by pregnant women are temporary and typically inexpensive. The smartest and safest course of action is to provide them, without making a federal case out of it. (Young v United Parcel Service, March 25, 2015).

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.

2015-06-12T23:17:08+00:00

About the Author:

Ann Kiernan has litigated claims of wrongful discharge and discrimination before state and federal courts and administrative matters before the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, representing both employers and employees. Ms. Kiernan co-hosted The Employee Rights Forum, a weekly radio call-in show reaching up to a half-million listeners in the New York metropolitan area, and her articles on employment law have been published in many books and magazines. Both as a firm partner and as a director, Ms. Kiernan gained solid experience in management and human resources compliance. She has worked with Fair Measures since 1997.