Susan Walsh / AP

Supreme Court hears landmark pregnancy discrimination case

At stake is whether pregnant workers are given 'reasonable accommodation' in the same way as disabled or injured workers

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a landmark case centering on the rights of pregnant employees not to be forced into unpaid leave or work in conditions that fail to accommodate their medical needs.

Depending on the court's ruling, companies could be required to afford mothers-to-be the same "reasonable accommodation" as they would physically disabled or injured workers.

It follows legal action by Peggy Young, a delivery driver for the United Parcel Service (UPS) in Maryland, who was instructed by a doctor not to lift any packages heavier than 20 pounds during her 2006 pregnancy.

Young wanted to work through her pregnancy, and asked UPS for a temporary change of assignment to avoid lifting heavy parcels. She said that most of her deliveries were overnight letters and small packages anyway and that her coworkers had agreed to help out with any large packages.

But UPS refused to accommodate Young’s wishes, since the company requires drivers to be able to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds. Instead, UPS put her on unpaid leave, during which Young lost her health insurance coverage.

Young sued UPS arguing that the company had violated the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), a 1978 amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits companies with 15 or more employees from discriminating “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.”

She said that UPS policy had offered temporary accommodations to workers who had been injured on the job, those who had conditions covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and those workers who had lost their commercial driver’s licenses due to a legal impediment such as a DUI.

But UPS, for its part, has argued that its accommodation policies were made as part of a collective bargaining agreement, and were “pregnancy-blind.”

“An employee whose physical restrictions preclude performance of an essential function of his or her job, but who is ineligible for an accommodation, must take a leave of absence,” attorneys for UPS argued, according to court documents. “This leave policy treats pregnant women ‘the same as anybody else.’”

Nonetheless, UPS has since changed its policy and will offer light-duty assignments to pregnant workers who want them starting in 2015.

That switch has not prevented Young’s case from going to the highest court in the land.

At stake, according to Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., is how broadly the Supreme Court reads the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which many courts have interpreted narrowly.

“When the PDA says that employers have to treat pregnant workers the same as they treat non-pregnant workers who are similar in their ability or inability to work, the employer’s job is just to look at ability to work,” Martin said. “And if the pregnant worker has the same ability to work as the person you’re accommodating, then the pregnant worker should be accommodated, too.”

Martin added, “The PDA says very clearly that employees must treat pregnant workers same as those with other disabilities.”

A ruling on the Supreme Court case is expected in June of 2015.

At the time of Young’s lawsuit, the state of Maryland did not have a law in place that required employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers who are pregnant. But in 2013, Maryland joined a handful of other states and cities (PDF) including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey and New York City that passed legislation requiring that companies accommodate the needs of pregnant workers.

In July, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission issued guidance clarifying the ways employers need to adhere to the PDA for the first time since the law was passed in 1978. The EEOC said that employers must offer their pregnant workers reasonable accommodations if they’re temporarily unable to do their jobs and that employers cannot force pregnant employees to take leave if they’re able to work. The commission also said employers must provide accommodation for those workers who have impairments related to pregnancy such as gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia.

“We’ve seen a lot of activity in state legislatures through the last few years to specifically require employers to provide accommodations for workers who need it,” Martin said. “This is really kind of a common ground issue that people from a lot of different places recognize that it just makes sense.”

Peggy Young’s case has won support from wide range of unlikely allies, from a consortium of pro-life groups such as American Life League and the Catholic Medical Association, to rights groups such as the ACLU and the Legal Aid Society.

“Policymakers and the courts should ensure that women like Young who want to achieve a healthy pregnancy are reasonably accommodated by their employers without sacrificing their economic security,” said Ann M. Starrs, president and chief executive officer of the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health policy and rights group, in a statement.

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