Peggy Young was a part-time driver for UPS when she became pregnant in 2006. Her doctor told her that she shouldn’t try to lift more than 20 pounds, which was 50 pounds less than UPS requires its drivers to lift. The company told Young it only provided accommodations for certain types of disabilities, and pregnancy was not among them. Young was told to take unpaid leave, which she did. She also sued her employer, claiming UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA).
After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit dismissed Young’s case against UPS, Youngappealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In March, the high court ruled 6-3 that Young was entitled to the opportunity to try her case again and sent the lawsuit back to the lower courts.
The Supreme Court ruling provides some insights for employers who are working to create consistent workplace disability-leave policies. To avoid claims of pregnancy-related disabilities, companies need to understand what constitutes pregnancy disabilities and discrimination, what laws they need to abide by and how they can comply with those laws.
Pregnancy and Disability
Several laws, including some state laws, cover pregnant workers who experience conditions that limit their ability to perform their usual jobs.
The PDA is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discriminating against employees based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII. “Women affected by pregnancy or related conditions must be treated in the same manner as other applicants or employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work,” the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said.
According to the EEOC, employees who are temporarily unable to perform their jobs because of pregnancy must be treated the same as any other temporarily disabled employee. For example, employers may need to provide light duty, modify tasks, create alternative assignments, or offer disability leave or leave without pay for pregnant employees if they offer those options to other workers.
It’s illegal to refuse to hire a woman because of her pregnancy-related condition, as long as she’s able to perform the essential functions of her job. The act also forbids discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any other aspect of employment, including “pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, fringe benefits, firing and any other term or condition of employment,” according to the EEOC.
Employers also may not require employees with pregnancy-related conditions to undergo medical clearance procedures that aren’t required of employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Employers can’t stop pregnant workers from working as long as they can do their jobs. If an employee has to take time off because of a pregnancy-related condition and can return to work before the baby is born, the employer can’t require her to stay on leave until after the baby is born.
When employees take pregnancy-related absences, employers must hold open the job for the same length of time that jobs are held open for employees who are on sick or temporary disability leave. Employers who provide health insurance must cover expenses for pregnancy-related conditions on the same basis as they do for expenses for other medical conditions.
Employers must also provide equal access to benefits. If an employer provides any benefits to workers on medical leave, the employer must provide the same benefits for those on medical leave for pregnancy-related conditions. When it comes to accruing and crediting seniority, vacation calculation, pay increases and temporary disability benefits, employers must treat temporarily disabled employees the same, even when the disability is caused by a pregnancy.
Some impairments that result from pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes, may qualify as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In those situations, employers may have to provide a reasonable accommodation for the pregnancy-related disability, as long as doing so doesn’t cause an undue hardship. With the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, it has become much easier to show that a medical condition is a covered disability.
The UPS Case
In the UPS case, Young had been working for the company as a truck driver since 2002. After she became pregnant in 2006, her doctor told her not to lift packages that weighed more than 20 pounds. Young asked UPS to either let her do light duty or her regular truck-driving tasks, since her job rarely required her to haul heavy boxes. She also claimed that other co-workers had offered to help with heavy packages.
Young’s manager told her that UPS only offered light duty to employees who suffered on-the-job injuries, those with disabilities covered by the ADA and those who had lost U.S. Department of Transportation certification because of physical conditions. She didn’t fall into any of those categories at the time, so UPS believed it wasn’t discriminating against her by refusing to allow her light-duty work. Young ended up taking an extended unpaid leave, during which she lost her medical coverage. She returned to work several months after giving birth.
She also sued. Two lower courts found in favor of UPS. In 2011, the district court found the company’s actions were “gender neutral” and that Young couldn’t prove discrimination. The appeals court agreed and found that UPS’s policy was “pregnancy blind.” However, the Supreme Court disagreed and sent the lawsuit back to the lower court.
Next Steps for Employers
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some common pregnancy complications include anemia, urinary tract infections, depression, high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, weight gain, infections and severe morning sickness. These conditions may lead workers to request disability-related accommodations. To create policies addressing pregnancy-related conditions that avoid violating disability or discrimination laws, companies should take several steps:
Understand all the relevant laws.Different state and federal regulations can cover pregnancy-related disability and discrimination. For example, employers in Illinois must comply with the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), as well as the ADA and the PDA. Under the PWFA, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2015, Illinois employers must provide reasonable accommodations for employees and job applicants because of pregnancy, unless the employer can demonstrate that doing so would impose an undue hardship.
To stay on top of all these regulations, it’s important to regularly consult with HR professionals, as well as in-house and outside attorneys. This will help employers understand what they’re required to do, and to be proactive with new regulations and case law.
Be consistent.UPS ran into trouble when Young claimed the company was applying disability accommodations differently for pregnant and non-pregnant workers. That’s why organizations need to have a policy that’s the same for workers suffering different types of disabilities.
Educate supervisors and employees.A little training goes a long way. By explaining the company’s policies clearly and regularly, and making sure policies are followed, companies can head off many potential legal problems before they start.
Update policies if necessary.In October 2014, before the Supreme Court ruling, UPS changed its pregnancy accommodation policies. “The new policy that went into effect January 2015 serves to strengthen UPS’s commitments to supporting women in the workplace and to treating all workers fairly,” the company said in a statement.
Pregnancy-related disability claims can be costly for employers and can generate not only bad press but also dissatisfaction among employees. In light of the recent Supreme Court decision, now is a good time for employers to review their policies and make any necessary changes.