- On July 29, 2015
Pregnancy Discrimination Case Young v. United Parcel Service (UPS)
Under the Family Medical Leave Act regulations, pregnancy is considered its own unique kind of disability that can last for around nine months. Despite this unique nature, employers must treat pregnancy as they would any other disability.
In the case of Young v. United Parcel Service, UPS said that since it did not generally give any special accommodations to people unable to do their job due to disability, it should not give accommodations to a pregnant woman who cannot lift heavy packages. However, Young argued, UPS did provide accommodations for a few specific cases, notably persons who suffered on the job injuries.
The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court and the court ended up laying out a framework that could be used to establish if an employer is indeed discriminatory with respect to pregnancy.
While working for UPS as a part-time driver, Peggy Young became pregnant in 2006. Her doctor restricted her to lifting 20 pounds or less during the initial 20 weeks of her pregnancy, and 10 pounds or less after that. As part of its terms of employment, UPS requires its drivers to be able to handle packages up to 70 pounds without assistance and up to 150 pounds with assistance.
Because she could not meet UPS’s terms of employment, Young was required by the company to take an unpaid leave of absence. She subsequently couldn’t afford to make payments to maintain her employee medical coverage. Young then filed legal action against UPS.
In court, UPS maintained that it had a “pregnancy-blind” policy – meaning that it doesn’t make pregnancy-related accommodations and doesn’t consider pregnancy a special case worthy of an exception to that policy. Both a district court and an appellate court sided with the parcel delivery company.
Supreme Court Case
In its decision, the Supreme Court said it would only be considering the matter of whether or not UPS acted unlawfully in not providing accommodation to Young for her pregnancy-related restrictions.
Young testified that her co-workers said they would be willing to help her lift any packages. She also testified that UPS had provided accommodations to other drivers that were “similar in their . . . inability to work.”
UPS admitted that it had indeed provided accommodations in the past; however, those accommodations had only been provided for employees hurt on the job, drivers who lost their Department of Transportation certification and those covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).
The court did note that Congress had expanded the ADA in 2008 to include mental and physical conditions that affect a person’s ability to stand, lift or bend. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has interpreted that to include employees with restrictions caused by off-the-job factors, the court said.
However, because the ADA expansion became effective after Young filed her case – it did not apply; although both the majority opinion and one of the dissenting opinions from the Court did recognize that expansion of the law.
In a 6-3 majority, the court concluded that lower courts must decide if a company is treating pregnant employees differently than non-pregnant employees with similar disabilities.
To help other courts to decide, the Supreme Court set up a legal framework based on McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green that says a plaintiff must provide evidence that their employer conducted its actions in a discriminatory manner and that any justifications offered by the employer are mere pretext for discrimination.
The Supreme Court then remained the case opened for other courts to judge based on the framework it had established.
Despite a decision that may appear to favor UPS, many observers said that the framework established by the court favors pregnant employees.
Young had argued that an employer that accommodates employees who cannot lift heavy object due to injury must also give the same accommodation for pregnant employees. The majority decision did not agree, but that “may not have much effect on the practical implications of the decision,” wrote Liz Morris, Cynthia Thomas Calvert and Joan C. Williams in a March article for Harvard Business Review.
The legal experts said the high legal burden set up by the court means employers must provide robust legal policies for why they are willing to provide accommodations to certain employees, but not pregnant women.
To show discrimination has occurred, the Harvard experts said, the plaintiff has to show that her employer accommodated numerous non-pregnant employees, yet not pregnant employees. Furthermore, if a company has policies that apply to non-pregnant employees only, a court will probably find that pregnant employees are being discriminated.
The Supreme Court also stated that an employer cannot defend is exclusionary policies by simply stating that it is more expensive or less convenient to provide accommodations to pregnant employees. The Court did not say what justification might be strong enough to exclude women.
Laws surrounding pregnancy discrimination appear to be expanding and becoming more robust.
In fact, some groups are calling for a federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act that would clarify and strengthen protections for pregnant employees. Supporters for the federal law point out that the amount of pregnancy discrimination cases have dropped significantly in states where these kinds of laws have been passed.
To steer clear of any thorny legal issues, employers may want to take a few protective steps. First, they should make sure any light-duty policies cover pregnant employees. Second, employers should review their policies to ensure they comply with both the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Third, employers should set up procedures for how to assess accommodations a pregnant employee’s doctor might lay out. Finally, employers should train staff to support any accommodations given to pregnant employees.