Legal Setback Not the End of the Line for Pregnant Workers Seeking Fairness on the Job
Peggy Young was a UPS truck driver. When employees at her jobsite needed changes to their job duties because they had a disability, or an on-the-job injury, or even a D.U.I. conviction that prevented them from driving legally, UPS provided it. However, when she asked for light duty in order to avoid heavy lifting for a few months because she was pregnant, her employer refused and forced her onto unpaid leave for the duration of her pregnancy. Unfortunately, last week the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held in United Parcel Service, Inc. v. Young, that in doing so, UPS did not violate the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), despite the PDA’s requirement that employers treat pregnant employees the same as other employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The court held that taking this language literally would “transform an antidiscrimination statute into a requirement to provide accommodation to pregnant employees” and concluded that Congress did not intend this result. It came to this conclusion even though in passing the PDA, Congress stated, “[W]hen pregnant women are not able to work for medical reasons, they must be accorded the same rights, leave privileges and other benefits, as other workers who are disabled from working.”
The Fourth Circuit’s decision is extremely troubling, but to quote an aptly-titled article on the decision, Pregnancy Bias Fight Not Over, Despite 4th Circ. Ruling. The article notes that because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was expanded in 2008 to require employers to provide accommodations to workers with temporary disabilities, employers may be “guilty of discrimination for not providing pregnant workers the same accommodations” when they have similar temporary restrictions on their ability to work.
In Peggy Young’s case, the National Women’s Law Center joined the ACLU and others in similarly arguing that the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) significantly expands the rights of pregnant workers like Peggy Young to workplace accommodations. That law requires employers to accommodate a range of disabilities that mimic typical pregnancy symptoms—for example, a temporary back injury that leaves an employee unable to lift more than 20 pounds, or a condition that causes individuals to experience shortness of breath when walking reasonable distances. If a worker is experiencing pregnancy complications, she may now be directly covered by the ADA. Moreover, because the PDA requires employers to treat pregnant employees the same as other workers who are similar in their ability or inability to work, the ADA’s new requirement to accommodate many persons with temporary disabilities may lead to a requirement to also accommodate those pregnant workers experiencing similar limitations.
Unfortunately, Young was forced onto unpaid leave before the ADAAA became effective. Thus, the court did not apply it, and expressly refused to consider whether it would have affected the outcome of the case. As a result, one lawyer for management noted, the ruling in this case might not apply to pregnant workers seeking accommodation from their employers today.
Court decisions in the coming months and years will address this developing area of law for the first time. Luckily, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in response to the urging of NWLC and other advocates, identified the accommodation of pregnant workers as an enforcement priority for the next four years. EEOC leadership and guidance in this area is critical, to make employers’ legal obligations to accommodate pregnant workers clear for employers and the courts. Peggy Young’s case is also a reminder that Congress must pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, to make it unmistakably clear that pregnant workers are entitled to the same reasonable accommodations as workers with disabilities. Pregnant workers’ health, safety, and livelihoods all hang in the balance.