Supreme Court Paves the Way for Pregnancy Accommodations
This morning, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Young v. United Parcel Service (Case No. 12-1226). The case addressed whether, and in what circumstances, employers are required to provide workplace accommodations for pregnant employees with medical limitations. Seems obvious, right? Wrong. Workplace accommodations are required for employees who are disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADAAA). Common accommodations include: flexible work schedules, tele-commuting, intermittent leave, and ergonomic work space furniture. But pregnancy is not a “disability” under the ADA. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy – but it does not explicitly require an employer to grant workplace accommodations.
Peggy Young was a part-time driver for United Parcel Service (UPS). When she became pregnant, her doctor advised her that she should not lift more than 20 pounds. UPS, however, required drivers like Young to be able to lift up to 70 pounds. UPS told Young that she could not work while under a lifting restriction. Young subsequently filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that UPS acted unlawfully in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction.
UPS had policies that accommodated workers who were injured on the job, or had disabilities covered by the ADA. Pursuant to these policies, UPS had accommodated several individuals whose disabilities created lifting restrictions similar to hers. UPS responded that, since Young did not fall within the on-the-job injury or ADA categories (i.e., she was not “disabled”), it was not required to give her light-duty accommodation.
Employers are allowed to treat different types of employees differently. For example, an employer is free to provide annual bonus incentives to its higher-up executives, but not to entry-level employees. That’s because those classes of employees are not “similarly situated” to one another. But employers must treat groups of “similarly situated” employees the same (i.e., those with generally the same job duties, reporting structures, etc.). According to UPS, pregnant employees are not “similarly situated” to employees with on-the-job injuries or ADA disabilities – so UPS is allowed to treat them differently. Essentially, UPS was asking for permission to treat different types of physical impairments differently – granting accommodations for, say, a hernia injury or fractured hip, but not for pregnancy.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court has rejected UPS’s arguments. It recognized that there is an significant issue as to whether “UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from [Young’s].” The case is being sent back to Fourth Circuit (the court that previously dismissed Young’s case in favor of UPS) with instructions from the Supreme Court to “try again.”