Supreme Court to Clarify Pregnant Workers’ Rights

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral argument in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc.,[1] a case that is expected to clarify employers’ legal obligations when pregnant women with work limitations seek workplace accommodations.

Petitioner Peggy Young was a driver for UPS, a positon that required her to lift up to 70 pounds. During her pregnancy, her doctor advised her not to lift more than 20 pounds, and she asked UPS to placer her on “light duty” – something UPS provided for employees who (1) had been injured on the job, (2) were disabled, or (3) had lost their commercial driver’s licenses. UPS denied Young’s request, reasoning that Young’s pregnancy was neither a disability nor an on-the-job injury, and put her on unpaid leave for the next nine months.

Young sued UPS under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”), alleging UPS’ policy discriminated against pregnant women. Since the PDA became law in 1978, it has been illegal to treat women workers unequally just because they become pregnant. But it has remained unclear whether employers who grant light-duty work accommodations to temporarily disabled workers must also provide light-duty accommodations to women whose doctors place similar restrictions on the work they can do during pregnancy.

Young argued that UPS’ policy is illegal under PDA, because it treats pregnant workers less favorably than non-pregnant workers who are similar in their ability or inability to work. UPS (which has since changed its policy), argued that Young is seeking is “special treatment for pregnant employees” — something the PDA does not require.  UPS pointed out that even the Justice Department has in the past defended a US Postal Service policy that treats pregnant women in substantially the same way. (The Justice Department said that policy is now being reconsidered.)

Both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of UPS. Women’s rights advocates and the U.S. Department of Justice have now lined up on Young’s side. The Supreme Court’s ruling should clarify the rights available to pregnant women, as well as what is required of employers, under the PDA.

[1] No. 12-1226 (argued Dec. 3, 2014).