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Supreme Court Will Decide Scope of Protection for Pregnant Workers in Young v. UPS

When she became pregnant in 2006, Peggy Young’s doctor told her not to lift more than 20 pounds during the early part of her pregnancy, and no more than 10 thereafter.  Upon hearing of this restriction, Young’s employer, UPS, refused to let her stay in her job, as she occasionally – albeit rarely – needed to lift packages more than 20 pounds.  Young responded that she could keep working: she could do her “regular job” with occasional assistance from willing coworkers or she could be assigned to “light duty” like other employees to whom UPS offered light duty when they faced similar work restrictions.  UPS refused to accommodate Young; a division manager told her she was “too much of a liability” while pregnant and instructed her not to return until she “was no longer pregnant.”  Young took an extended unpaid leave of absence and eventually lost her medical coverage.

The Supreme Court today hears oral argument in Young v. UPS, Young’s case alleging that UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) by failing to provide her with the same accommodations it provided non-pregnant workers who were similar to Young in their ability to work.  (The many briefs in the case are here.)  The PDA, which was enacted in 1978, amended Title VII to clarify that discrimination based on pregnancy is a form of sex discrimination; the statute further provides that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”   Young argues that the PDA requires an employer that accommodates non-pregnant employees with work limitations to provide pregnant women who are “similar in their ability or inability to work” with the same accommodations.

UPS argues that it treated Young the same as any employee unable to perform her job due to an off-the-job injury or condition.  According to UPS, its policy is therefore “pregnancy-neutral” – that is, it does not single out pregnancy for special treatment – and therefore is not sex discrimination.  Moreover, UPS argues, Young’s interpretation of the PDA would create a “preferential treatment mandate” because pregnant women would be treated better than other similarly-situated individuals.  However, while staunchly upholding its prior policy before the Supreme Court, as a practical matter, UPS has changed its tune: the company explained in its brief that “pregnant UPS employees will prospectively be eligible for light-duty assignments.”

The federal government – through the Solicitor General – echoes Young’s arguments in a brief supporting her position.  The Solicitor General and other amici argue that the text of the statute is clear: pregnant women cannot be treated differently from others who are similar in their ability to work.  The question – as it should be in a law about workers – is whether the workers are comparable in their ability to work, not where the limitation originates.  Although the courts of appeals – both in Young’s case and in similar cases – have adopted UPS’s position, the Solicitor General bluntly concludes that those courts all got it wrong when they ignored the plain language of the statute.  Moreover, the Solicitor General notes, courts have no business questioning Congress’s underlying policy rationale and suggesting that the statute cannot mean what it says because to read its protections for pregnant women literally creates an “anomalous” result.  The policy reasons for enacting a statute are “quintessentially legislative judgments” and “Congress understood the vital role that working mothers play in American families and made the policy decision to protect the ability of such women to provide for their families at the very time they are becoming mothers.”  This is not a preferential treatment mandate; Congress merely required employers to treat pregnant workers as well as they choose to treat other workers with similar limitations.  Under the PDA, an employer is not required to accommodate a pregnant woman with work limitations where the employer would not accommodate a non-pregnant individual with the same work limitations.

Young’s argument is also supported by ten other amicus briefs from a broad range of groups, including women’s rights organizations, civil liberties groups, labor unions, health care organizations (concerned with infant and maternal health), 23 anti-abortion groups (concerned that failing to accommodate working women will contribute to decisions to abort pregnancies), Members of Congress (including those involved in the passage of the PDA),  state and local legislators, and business groups (including both the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce and other business groups whose mandate does not focus specifically on women in the workplace).

While Young’s case concerns pregnancy protections for all women, amici point out that the case has particular importance to women of color.  Denial of workplace accommodations may disproportionately affect women of color, as they are “over-represented in low wage jobs that are physically demanding.”  The failure to accommodate pregnant women of color may exacerbate existing health care disparities for women and infants of color.  Amici also note that single working mothers who are the sole breadwinners in their families are “more likely to be young Black women or Hispanic women than women of any other race,” and that their displacement from the workforce affects not only those women individually, but the success of the next generation, meaning that “the inter-generational consequences of failing to accommodate pregnancy-related limitations fall most heavily on Black families and communities, creating a cycle of poverty and disadvantage.”  Amici also note that workplaces are increasingly flexible and that such flexible policies lead to “greater productivity at minimal cost.”

Support for UPS is more tepid, with four amicus briefs weighing in, generally from groups representing business interests and a conservative advocacy group.

The outcome of Young is important to pregnant workers, and to their families.  But while the scope of the PDA remains uncertain pending the Supreme Court’s action, various other federal and state laws may help pregnant women who need temporary accommodations to stay employed.  I will examine some other sources of legal protection for pregnant workers in a follow-up post later this week.

 

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