Pregnant workers' rights: Supreme Court takes up UPS driver's case

The justices appeared divided on Wednesday on whether the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act would have required the company to offer a light-duty assignment to a pregnant driver whose doctor ordered her not to lift anything heavier than 20 pounds.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Former UPS driver Peggy Young departs the Supreme Court in Washington Wednesday. The justices appeared unsure on Wednesday how to decide the case that could determine whether employers must provide accommodations for pregnant workers who may have physical limitations on the duties they can perform.

A divided US Supreme Court on Wednesday took up the case of a pregnant United Parcel Service driver in Maryland who was denied a light-duty accommodation after her doctor advised her to avoid lifting anything heavier than 20 pounds.

Instead of being allowed to sort small packages or answer phones in an office, the driver, Peggy Young, was required to take extended, unpaid leave. As a result, she lost her employer-sponsored medical coverage.

After giving birth and returning to work, Ms. Young sued UPS under the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).

A federal judge threw the suit out. An appeals court affirmed, saying Young was treated no differently than other UPS workers.

Now her case is before the Supreme Court, where Young’s lawyer is asking the justices to embrace a broader reading of the PDA to allow greater protection for pregnant women in the workplace. 

“Our point is that a driver who is pregnant is entitled to the same accommodation that she would get if she sought it for another reason,” Samuel Bagenstos, a Michigan Law School professor representing Young, told the justices.

The case is being closely watched given the large and growing number of women in the American workforce, many of whom are the sole or primary provider for their families.

UPS defends its actions in the case by arguing that the company maintained a clear, non-discriminatory policy that applied across its workforce. It established who could receive light-duty accommodations and who couldn’t. The policy was set in a collective bargaining agreement negotiated with the Teamsters union. 

Under the policy, the company offered temporary alternative work assignments to anyone who sustained an injury on the job. Because Young’s pregnancy and the requested accommodation were unrelated to an injury sustained at work, company officials determined that she was not eligible for a light-duty assignment.

In an exception to that rule, the company has offered alternative assignments to pregnant workers in UPS facilities in the nine states that require such an accommodation under state law. At the time of Young’s pregnancy, Maryland did not require an accommodation for pregnant workers.

In addition, UPS has announced it will change its policy next month to offer accommodations for pregnant workers. 

How the court rules could have a significant impact on the policies of other companies across the country.

To resolve the case, the justices must clarify the purpose and scope of the PDA. Is the measure an attempt by Congress to outlaw intentional discrimination and unequal treatment of pregnant workers, or is it instead an accommodation statute, requiring companies to offer special treatment whenever a pregnant employee requests a light-duty assignment because of a difficult pregnancy?

Caitlin Halligan, a New York appellate lawyer representing UPS, said the pregnancy discrimination law is designed to require companies to treat pregnant employees on equal terms with other employees.

She said since UPS’s policy limiting accommodations to on-the-job injuries applies equally to all workers, it does not single out pregnant workers for discriminatory treatment.

Justice Elena Kagan disagreed.

“This UPS policy puts all pregnant workers on one side of the line [without any accommodation],” she said.

UPS drivers are required as part of their job qualifications to lift packages up to 70 pounds.

In 2006, Young’s doctor instructed her to avoid lifting anything heavier than 20 pounds for the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy. The doctor further advised her to avoid lifting anything more than 10 pounds for the remainder of her pregnancy.

Young delivered a note from her doctor to UPS, and asked for a light-duty assignment during her pregnancy. The company declined, saying that UPS only gave light duty assignments for workplace injuries, not pregnancy. 

It is unclear how the high court may resolve the dispute. Justices Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared to be most sympathetic to Young. Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito expressed skepticism about a suggested broad reading of the anti-discrimination law.

Justice Scalia referred to Young’s view of the law as a “most favored nation” measure that would require special treatment for pregnant workers.

Mr. Bagenstos sought to turn that characterization around in his closing statement. 

“[UPS’s] position would give least favored nation status to pregnant workers and that is not what Congress set out to do,” he said.

The Obama administration is supporting Young in the litigation. US Solicitor General Donald Verrilli told the justices that in passing the PDA Congress sought to “reduce the number of women driven from the workplace” because of pregnancy.

“Here the choice Congress made is the choice to protect women with pregnancy-related medical conditions,” he said.

The case is Young v. UPS (12-1226).

A decision is expected by June.

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