Pregnancy discrimination is protected under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). Courts often struggle with how to handle pregnancy issues because it is separate from the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and an on-the-job injury. Under the ADA, a person qualifies for protected leave when they have a serious health condition and if you are injured on the job, you have protection under the state’s workers’ compensation system. Typically, being pregnant is not a serious health condition, and light duty is often reserved only for those injured on the job. So what happens when a pregnant worker’s doctor restricts her work (e.g. no heavy lifting)?
Though the United States Supreme Court did not ultimately answer this question, recently it did provide a framework to analyze whether discrimination occurred. In Young v. UPS, the United States Supreme Court clarified the test used for pregnancy discrimination cases. Young, a UPS driver, on doctor’s advice, asked to be relieved from heavy lifting during her pregnancy. UPS denied her request because light duty was reserved for workers who lost their driver’s license, were disabled under the ADA, or sustained an on-the-job injury. Young was forced to take unpaid leave and lost her medical benefits.
She brought a discrimination claim under a disparate impact theory. Disparate impact claims involve “using a practice that ‘fall[s] more harshly on one group than another and cannot be justified by business necessity.” Young argued UPS was required to grant her the same accommodations available to other workers with similar restrictions. UPS argued that its accommodations policy was neutral and therefore, compliant with the PDA. The Court disagreed.
The Court, level-headed as always, decided a third option was more appropriate. It held a plaintiff alleging pregnancy discrimination under a disparate impact theory can make a prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas framework. The plaintiff must show (1) she is a member of the protected class, (2) she requested an accommodation, (3) UPS refused to grant the accommodation, and (4) that “the employer did accommodate others ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’” If proved, the employer must articular a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its treatment of plaintiff, then plaintiff has an opportunity to show the employer’s reasons do not justify the burden imposed.
What does this mean to you? Identify policies you have in place that may significantly burden pregnant workers and assess whether non-discriminatory reasons for those policies justify that burden. Of course in hindsight, it likely would have been easier for UPS to have accommodated Young back in 2006, rather than still be litigating this issue in 2015. If you would like help reviewing your employee handbook for policies in light of the Young v. UPS case, please feel free to contact me at .