Roberts Court Takes Up Issue of Accommodating Pregnant Workers

The Roberts Court is poised to clarify what employers must do to accommodate pregnant workers on the job. This could be terrible news.

The Roberts Court is poised to clarify what employers must do to accommodate pregnant workers on the job. This could be terrible news. Shutterstock

The Supreme Court will start next term right where it left off this summer—by scrutinizing the rights of women in the workplace. Specifically, the Court will consider the case of Peggy Young, a part-time delivery driver for UPS whose discrimination claim puts a spotlight on the vulnerabilities many workers face if they become pregnant.

While an employee with UPS, Young became pregnant, and her doctor told her not to lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy. Young approached her employer for a light-duty assignment as a temporary accommodation for the medical restrictions related to her pregnancy. UPS refused her request, saying the company had a “pregnancy-blind” policy of giving light-duty job assignments to people who are injured on the job, those who are disabled under federal disability rights law, or those who have lost their federal driver certification. Because UPS wouldn’t accommodate Young, she was forced to take unpaid leave for the rest of her pregnancy and, as a result, lost wages and her health insurance coverage just a few months prior to the birth of her child.

Young sued, claiming UPS’s refusal to offer her a light-duty assignment to accommodate her pregnancy violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which requires that employers treat pregnant employees “similar in their ability or inability to work” as non-pregnant employees when deciding accommodations. Young and her attorneys argued that UPS’s “pregnancy-blind” policy violated the law, because by denying Young an accommodation available to others, it treated Young, a pregnant worker, differently than her non-pregnant co-workers who were similar in their inability to work. Young lost at the district court, which held that companies like UPS could adopt rules that allow employees similar to Young to go on light duty, while blocking Young from receiving the same accommodation for her pregnancy, without violating the PDA.

While Young was litigating her claims, Congress amended another law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, to require employers to make reasonable accommodations for a broad range of temporary disabilities that would affect Young’s claims in her case. However, those amendments were not in place when Young sued, leaving open the question of if, and how, the amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act work with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to require employers to accommodate workplace requests like Young’s.

It’s an important question to answer, but given the Roberts Court’s open hostility toward the rights of workers, and especially women workers, some hoped the Court would not grant review. The Obama administration urged the Court not to take the case, saying that while the lower courts were wrong to deny Young’s claims, Supreme Court action at this time would be premature. The Obama administration argued that since Young’s case, Congress has augmented the law while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is finalizing new guidelines for employers in accommodating pregnant workers. The lower courts need time to consider those changes, and employers need time to react as well, the Obama administration argued.

Despite the urging of the Obama administration, or maybe in spite of it, the Roberts Court took up the case anyway.

Three-quarters of women entering the labor force will be pregnant on the job at some point in their lives, and issues of workplace accommodations for pregnant workers increasingly affect low-wage women workers. So this is a big case, and one that no matter the ruling will have a wide reach. It’s also a case that wades into issues of gender stereotyping, gender-neutral leave policies, and cultural assumptions about mothers’ and fathers’ “differential attachments to the labor force,” including the way a cultural reverence for pregnancy and new mothers contributes to instances of pregnancy discrimination. These are murky waters for the conservatives on the Roberts Court.

Given this backdrop, there’s a dangerous but tempting argument teed up for the justices. Similar to the “post-racial” arguments made to support gutting affirmative action in Fisher v. Texas, UPS and its supporters have attempted to make a “post-sex discrimination” argument and claim Young wants pregnant workers to be treated more favorably than any other protected class covered by the workplace anti-discrimination law Title VII. Furthermore, they argue, the policy in place at UPS was a result of an extensively negotiated collective bargaining agreement. That means the conservatives on the Court could side with UPS, leaving a majority of women workers even more vulnerable to workplace discrimination in the name of deferring to collective bargaining agreements.

The Court will hear the case in its next term, beginning in October. A date for arguments has not yet been set.