Working While Pregnant: What Accommodations Must Be Made for Pregnant Workers?

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether employers must provide special accommodations for pregnant employees.

Photo by Hu O'Reilly for Trocaire (Flickr)

The rising number of women entering the workforce in recent years has brought with it increased questions surrounding legal requirements for accommodating pregnant employees.  The classification of pregnant workers as those requiring accommodations or requiring equal treatment to similarly situated employees has resulted in amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and even to individual employers’ policies.

On December 3, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in Young v. UPS, a pregnancy discrimination case on appealed from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in 2013.  The Court is being asked to consider whether employers are required to reasonably accommodate pregnant workers if similarly situated employees with the particular employer are provided accommodations.  Particularly, two federal statutes come into play in this case as argued by the Plaintiff: the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

After Young disclosed that she was pregnant and had doctor’s orders for a temporary twenty-pound lifting restriction, the occupational health manager at UPS informed her that the company’s policies at that time would not allow her to continue working.

The case spawned from a 2006 incident where Peggy Young, the Appellant, was not permitted to continue working with the United Parcel Service (UPS) because of her inability to perform the essential functions of her job.  After Young disclosed that she was pregnant and had doctor’s orders for a temporary twenty-pound lifting restriction, the occupational health manager at UPS informed her that the company’s policies at that time would not allow her to continue working.

UPS policies allowed for light duty work for workers who suffered an on-the-job injury, those accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and those who lost their Department of Transportation certification and could not drive the trucks.  Another policy also required that UPS air drivers be able to lift seventy or more pounds and could not be restrained by a twenty-pound lifting restriction.  The manager interpreted the policies as requiring her to treat Young as she would anyone who could not perform their regular job functions because of a lifting restriction that was not a result of an on-the-job injury or illness.  She informed Young that she could not return to work unless the lifting restriction was released.

After unsuccessfully attempting to continue working during her pregnancy, Young filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging race, sex, and pregnancy discrimination.  She also filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland alleging sex and race discrimination under Title VII and disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The district court, after eighteen months of discovery, granted UPS’s summary judgment motion, dismissed Young’s race discrimination claim, and determined that UPS did not discriminate against Young when it failed to accommodate her.  Young appealed the decision of the district court claiming that UPS regarded her as disabled under the ADA and discriminated against her when it failed to accommodate her, and that it discriminated against her in violation of the PDA when it failed to allow her to continue working despite her pregnancy and lifting restrictions.

To have a claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must prove that 1) she is disabled, 2) she is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation, and 3) that she suffered an adverse employment action because of her disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law to prevent discrimination based on an individual’s disability.  Specifically, the Act prohibits discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of a disability, perceived or actual.  Those who have a disability or who have a known association with someone with a disability are protected by the ADA.  To have a claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must prove that 1) she is disabled, 2) she is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation, and 3) that she suffered an adverse employment action because of her disability.

Under the ADA, one is considered to have a disability if the individual has an actual disability defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or if the individual is regarded as having such an impairment.  A major life activity is an activity that is of severe importance to daily life such as hearing, seeing, standing, walking, having a capable immune system, etc.  If a worker has a legally recognized disability, the employer cannot discriminate against a potential employee by not hiring them or by performing another adverse employment action, so long as that worker is able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without an accommodation. In many instances, if the plaintiff fails to prove they have a legally recognized disability under the Act, the employer is not required to accommodate the employee.

At the heart of the ADA discussion in this case is the question of when a person is regarded as disabled.  To be considered disabled under the Act, the plaintiff must prove that she has been subjected to an action that is not permitted under the Act because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment which limits a major life activity.  Even if an employer mistakenly believes that an actual, non-limiting impairment would substantially limit one or more of an employee’s major life activities, this may also be considered a disability.

The PDA states that an employer is not permitted to have a policy which explicitly excludes pregnant workers or is intentionally designed to prevent pregnant workers from advancing.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is a federal statute adding on to Title VII’s sex discrimination prohibition.  The PDA states that an employer is not permitted to have a policy which explicitly excludes pregnant workers or is intentionally designed to prevent pregnant workers from advancing.  Similarly, an employer may not make a decision to hire someone or take an adverse action based on one’s ability to become pregnant.  The PDA provides that an employer shall treat women who are affected by pregnancy in the same way for employment-related purposes as they treat other persons who are similarly situated in their ability or inability to work.  It is unclear whether the law is simply an expansion of the sex discrimination prohibition or whether it suggests that different treatment is required for pregnant workers.

A majority of courts have consistently interpreted the PDA as not creating a distinct cause of action and as not requiring employers to offer leave or take steps to make it easier for pregnant women to work.  The PDA typically permits employers to make their own decisions about how to treat pregnant employees, merely requiring that pregnant employees be treated the same as similarly situated non-pregnant workers.  If the employer has not given accommodations or privileges to pregnant employees in the past, usually a pregnant employee will not have a case for not being accommodated in a particular way.

The court held that where an employer has a policy treating pregnant workers the same as they would similar, non-pregnant workers, it has complied with the law.

The Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court in not finding discrimination under the ADA or the PDA.  The court concluded that UPS did not regard Young as disabled, since the only evidence of such a belief was the managers’ understanding that Young was pregnant and under temporary lifting restrictions due to the pregnancy.  Young’s pregnancy and lifting restrictions did not satisfy the “regarded as” component of the disability definition, and therefore the ADA claim could not stand.

The Fourth Circuit also considered whether UPS’s policy permitting some workers to be limited to light duty work, but not permitting the same accommodation for pregnant workers violated the PDA.  Young argued that the Act requires employers to provide pregnant workers light duty work as it does for workers who are similarly situated in their inability to work.  Here, UPS had a policy that the court calls “pregnancy-blind,” in that it did not exclude pregnant workers from any benefit, advancement, or hiring opportunity.  In fact, the policy does not consider pregnancy, but rather considers the situation of employees in instances that have occurred on-the-job, not off.

To be successful in a Title VII claim for sex discrimination, the employee must establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination based on her pregnancy by showing: 1) she is a member of a protected class; 2) she has satisfactory job performance; 3) an adverse employment action has been made against her; and 4) that similarly-situated employees outside the protected class received more favorable treatment.  Here, the court held that while Young satisfied the first three elements, she did not show that similarly situated employees that were not in the protected class were treated more favorably.

In this instance, UPS treated similarly situated employees the same as they did Young and other pregnant workers.  Young was not permitted to work. The manager stated that if a similarly situated employee came to her with such a limiting restriction on a worker’s ability to perform an essential function of the job, she would have done the same thing and not permitted that person to work.  A pregnant worker cannot compare herself to those protected by the ADA or even those injured on the job, because pregnancy is neither a disability under the ADA, nor an injury occurring while on the job.  The court held that where an employer has a policy treating pregnant workers the same as they would similar, non-pregnant workers, it has complied with the law.

The court was hesitant to adopt Young’s argument because it would allow pregnant employees to receive special treatment instead of equal treatment.

The important issue in this case is whether an employer is required to provide accommodations for pregnant workers, whose limitations arose from an event that happened outside of the workplace and off the job, or whether an employer is simply required to treat pregnant workers as they would any similarly situated employee.  When the Supreme Court is ruling on this case, it will be considering how employers should treat pregnant workers when considering accommodations. If the Supreme Court rules that employers are to treat pregnant workers differently than they would similar workers who are not pregnant, this would appear to go against the purpose of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The Fourth Circuit implied that Young’s interpretation of the law would permit special treatment for pregnant workers.  The court reminds us that the purpose of the PDA is to make it so that an employee is not treated differently than any other employee based on her being pregnant or her being able to become pregnant.  Pregnancy has not been considered a disability under the ADA unless the pregnant woman experiences severe disabling illnesses or complications during the pregnancy.  The court was hesitant to adopt Young’s argument because it would allow pregnant employees to receive special treatment instead of equal treatment.

On the other hand, pregnancy can result in numerous restrictions. Some of these restrictions are caused by the inherent sensitivity of pregnancy, the risks of having complications, and a general change in hormones and physical ability.  These restrictions are inherent in becoming pregnant and are often expected.  A woman is not able to do all of the activities she was able to prior to becoming pregnant.  Refusal to permit a woman to have accommodations because of her pregnancy may discourage women from considering pregnancy or from taking jobs in certain market areas.

Despite being advised not to take the case by the United States Solicitor General, the Supreme Court will make its ruling on how employers are to treat pregnant workers in the future.  Not only will the decision affect women, but it will also impact employers’ policies providing accommodations for pregnant workers.

As more women enter the workforce, concerns regarding pregnancy policies will continue to be debated adjusted. The recent trend has been toward employers changing their policies to deal with similar situations.  UPS changed its policy in October 2014, establishing potential for light duty work being provided for pregnant workers with physical restrictions beginning in 2015.  Though it does not have lawmaking authority, the EEOC has also updated its guidelines to encourage employers to accommodate workers in Young’s situation.

Updated March 25, 2015: In a 6-3 decision (PDF), the Court sent the case back to the Virginia courts because, “[v]iewing the record in the light most favorable to Young, there is a genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s.” A more in-depth analysis of the decision can be found here.

Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor
About Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor (42 Articles)
Regan Gatlin is a 2016 graduate and served as the Ethics Editor for the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. Regan graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Sociology. Regan has previously clerked for the Insurance Section of the North Carolina Department of Justice, The General Counsel of The Select Group, and Safran Law Offices. During her experiences clerking, she gained civil litigation and research experience in the areas of insurance, construction law, labor and employment, and compliance. She also competed on a Campbell Law Trial Team in the Buffalo-Niagara Mock Trial Competition and the American Association for Justice (AAJ) Mock Trial Competition. Regan is from Smithfield, North Carolina.
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