One Big Step Forward For Pregnant Women

Read it here.

Pregnant WomanIn a much anticipated ruling, yesterday the Supreme Court weighed in on whether a UPS driver, Peggy Young, had been discriminated against based on pregnancy. Instead of providing Peggy with light-duty work, as it had done for many other workers, UPS instead forced her to take unpaid leave. This case has gotten a lot of press, partly because it is important legally, and partly because what happened to Peggy seems so clearly wrong to so many of us.

The facts are simple. Peggy Young worked as a part-time UPS driver. When she became pregnant in 2006, her doctor restricted her to lifting no more than 20 pounds. Typically, UPS required its drivers to lift 70 pounds, so Peggy asked her employer for an accommodation. But UPS refused to give Peggy light duty and told her she had to take unpaid leave (with no health benefits). UPS said it had a policy of only giving such light-duty accommodations to employees who were injured on the job, had lost their DOT certificates (for example due to a DUI), or had a disability, none of which applied to Peggy.

The question before the court: Was Peggy discriminated against based on pregnancy? The lower courts sided with UPS and refused to let the case go to a jury. But in a 6-3 decision yesterday, the Supreme Court disagreed, reversing and sending the case back so that Peggy could pursue her claims.

Many headlines have described the Supreme Court’s decision as a “win” for pregnant working women and said that the Court “sided” with Peggy.

That’s true in some ways. The Supreme Court did reinstate Peggy’s discrimination case. But in many ways, the Court’s decision wasn’t a win for either side. The Court rejected arguments made by both Peggy (whose position was supported by the federal government) and by UPS, and instead formulated its own compromise approach. The Court rejected Peggy Young’s argument that female pregnant workers were entitled to the same accommodations that employers granted to any other group of employees with disabling conditions, saying that this would give pregnant women a “most favored nation” status. But the Court also rejected UPS’s argument that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act merely prohibits employers from singling out pregnant women for disfavored treatment and doesn’t require any form of accommodations.

Dissatisfied with the arguments on both sides, the Court set up a clear, common-sense framework for pregnancy discrimination cases going forward. First, the female worker must show that she asked to be accommodated when she couldn’t do her regular job due to pregnancy, that the employer denied her request, and that the employer did provide accommodations to other workers similarly unable to do their job. Those accommodations could be physical, such as adjusting lifting restrictions or providing a chair, or they could take other forms, such as the allowing the worker to carry a water bottle or have more bathroom breaks. Second, the employer has the opportunity to defend its policy by showing that it had some neutral business rationale. That rationale can’t simply be cost or inconvenience. Third and finally, the employee can win by showing that the employer’s supposed neutral justification isn’t strong enough to justify the “significant burden” it places on female workers.

Whether Peggy Young will win her case under this new framework is still an open question—the case now goes back to the lower court to be looked at again. And yesterday’s Supreme Court opinion is not the final word on accommodations for pregnant women. In 2008 (after this suit was filed), the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended, and that law could offer important additional protections for pregnant workers needing accommodations.

Those are questions for another day. But for today, there is cause for celebration. In the words of Peggy’s attorney, “It’s a big step forward towards enforcing the principle that a woman shouldn’t have to choose between her pregnancy and her job.”