The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to hear the appeal of Peggy Young. She wants the Court to decide whether, and in what circumstances, the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (“PDA”) requires an employer to provide work accommodations to pregnant employees. If the Supreme Court decides to take this case, it might possibly follow California’s example in requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnancy.
Young worked for United Parcel Service (“UPS”) as a driver in Maryland. Following two unsuccessful rounds of in vitro fertilization, Young became pregnant. She then submitted to UPS notes from her medical providers who recommended that she not lift more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy. These notes caused UPS to conclude that Young was unable to perform the essential functions of her job, which requires drivers to lift up to 70 pounds, and that she was ineligible for a light duty assignment. UPS’s policy stated that light duty was only available for employees who either had sustained an on-the-job injury, had lost their Department of Transportation certification, or were disabled within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because Young did not qualify for light duty under these criteria, she was placed on an extended leave of absence without pay and eventually lost her medical coverage. She returned to work at UPS after giving birth.
In her lawsuit, Young alleges, among other things, that UPS’ light duty policy violated the PDA. It prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. In addition, the PDA only requires pregnancy accommodations if the accommodations are already provided to employees “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA ultimately sided with UPS and held that the company’s light duty policy was “neutral” and “pregnancy-blind” in that it did not discriminate against pregnant workers. The Court also concluded that the PDA does not require an employer to provide light-duty assignments to pregnant employees unless light duty was also available to non-pregnant workers. Where a policy treats pregnant and non-pregnant workers the same, the employer has complied with the PDA.
Finally, the Court of Appeals said that if the PDA required employers to accommodate pregnant employees with light duty work as Young argued, then it would cause employers to favor pregnant workers over non-pregnant workers whose restrictions arise from non-work related conditions. For example, under this scenario, a pregnant worker would be entitled to light duty while a firefighter who injured his back picking up his infant child would be ineligible for light duty. Thus, the Court of Appeals felt Young’s interpretation of the PDA was not consistent with Congress’ intent in enacting the law.
Regardless of whether the Supreme Court decides to hear Young v. UPS, California employers are already required to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees. Regulations regarding pregnancy under the Fair Employment and Housing Act provide that it is illegal for an employer to deny a pregnant employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation if the request is based on the advice of the employee’s medical provider and the requested accommodation is reasonable.
The regulations also provide that a factual determination must be made on a case-by-case basis to determine whether an accommodation is reasonable. Factors to be considered include, but are not limited to, the employee’s medical needs, the duration of the needed accommodation, and the employer’s legally permissible past and current practices. The employer and employee are also obligated to engage in a good faith interactive process to identify and implement the employee’s request for reasonable accommodation. The employer can require a medical certification supporting the employee’s need for an accommodation.
Women’s and civil rights organizations have praised California’s pregnancy accommodation law. Whether the Supreme Court will also be persuaded by California’s example if it decides to hear Young’s case remains to be seen.