The Employer's Legal Resource: Accomodations Under The Pregnancy Discrimination Act

10.01.14

Peggy Young worked for UPS as a part-time, early-morning air driver. As an air driver, Young was responsible for meeting a shuttle from the airport, picking up packages, and delivering packages for immediate delivery. Although most air delivery packages weighed less than 20 pounds, the ability to lift 70 pounds was listed as an essential job function of an air driver.

Young took a leave of absence to undergo in vitro fertilization; the round was successful and Young became pregnant. During the pregnancy, her midwife recommended that she not lift more than 20 pounds. Young gave her supervisor and UPS's occupational health manager a note from her midwife stating the same, and expressed a desire to return to work in her regular capacity or on light-duty.

UPS denied Young's request for an accommodation. Under UPS policy, accommodations are limited to instances where (1) an employee is injured on-the-job, (2) an employee has a permanent impairment cognizable under the ADA or (3) a driver loses Department of Transportation ("DOT") eligibility due to any number of reasons, including vision impairments, sleep apnea, and high blood pressure.

Due to her inability to lift more than 20 pounds, UPS concluded that Young was unable to perform the essential functions of an air driver. As a result, Young was forced to go on an extended, unpaid leave of absence, during which she lost medical coverage.

Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ("PDA"), an employer cannot discriminate against an employee based on her pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition. Young sued UPS alleging that UPS violated the PDA by limiting accommodations to three categories and failing to provide pregnant employees the same accommodations as non-pregnant employees similar in their ability/inability to work.

The PDA amended Title VII, clarifying the prohibition of discrimination because of sex; the PDA provides:

  1. The terms 'because of sex' or 'on the basis of sex' include because of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, and
  2. Women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes... as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability and inability to work.

42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k).

The trial court granted summary judgment for UPS, concluding that the UPS accommodation policy turned on "gender-neutral" criteria and did not constitute discrimination. Young appealed, and the appellate court affirmed.

The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari to consider whether, and in what circumstances, an employer that provides work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations must provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are "similar in their ability or inability to work."

Under the trial courts' reasoning, as long as accommodation policies are gender-neutral, an employer is insulated from PDA liability. Under UPS policy, if Young had been limited to lifting 20 pounds due to an on-the-job injury, she would have been entitled to an accommodation. Because the policy treats a pregnant woman with a lifting restriction differently than a non-pregnant employee with a lifting restriction, Young is arguing the UPS policy violates the PDA.

Currently, appellate circuits are split regarding application of the PDA to accommodation policies.

On December 3rd, the Supreme Court will hear arguments regarding application of the PDA.

Note: The EEOC issued Pregnancy Discrimination Guidance on July 14, 2014, which we covered in the August ELR. The Supreme Court's opinion could impact that guidance. We will keep you posted.

By Sierra G. Salton, ssalton@dsda.com

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Rebecca D. Bullard

Rebecca D. Bullard

Rebecca represents clients primarily in labor and employment
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