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Accommodating Pregnant Employees

The Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. UPS makes clear that employers should carefully review their policies and practices to ensure they do not unduly burden pregnant workers.

On Wednesday, March 25, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its much anticipated Pregnancy Discrimination Act decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. In a decision that could be viewed as a victory for UPS employee Peggy Young, the Court sent back the case to a lower court for further proceedings. In so doing, it rejected positions espoused by both sides.

The Court also dealt a blow to the EEOC’s controversial Enforcement Guidance: Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues issued in July 2014.

Background

Young addressed the scope of employer obligations to accommodate pregnant employees who have work restrictions. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act states that pregnant employees must be treated the same as non-pregnant employees “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Peggy Young was employed by UPS, and, while pregnant, was instructed by her doctor not to lift anything weighing more than 20 pounds. In the position she held with UPS, Ms. Young was regularly required to lift objects weighing 50 pounds. UPS, for its part, provided workplace accommodations in three circumstances: (1) for employees injured on the job, (2) for employees who had lost certain Department of Transportation certifications as a result of a medical condition, and (3) for employees who had a “permanent disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Ms. Young fit into none of these categories, and, when she requested an accommodation, it was denied.

UPS argued that it did not discriminate against Ms. Young because the failure to provide an accommodation was merely an application of its neutral policy and was not directed at pregnant employees. Ms. Young, in turn, argued that UPS was required to provide, for any employee with a pregnancy-related work restriction, the same accommodation it would give the employee if the restriction came from a different cause.

The Supreme Court rejected both positions. Instead, it crafted a new test for pregnant employees who contend they were denied accommodations. The Court held that the issue in such cases will come down to whether the employee presents evidence that “the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden.”

In addition to rejecting the positions put forward by both parties, the Court’s decision also dealt a blow to the EEOC’s Guidance issued in July 2014. The Court refused to rely on the Guidance, noting that its failure to do so was because of “timing, consistency, and thoroughness of consideration.”

Takeaway

Given the Supreme Court’s rejection of both the 2014 EEOC Enforcement Guidance and the position advanced by the employee, the decision in Young is not an unqualified victory for the employee. Nevertheless, the Court’s decision makes clear that employers should carefully review their policies and practices to ensure they do not unduly burden pregnant workers. Further, as a practical matter, in many instances employers may well be obligated to provide pregnant employees with accommodations or modifications.