The US Supreme Court will decide next term whether the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) requires an employer to provide workplace accommodations to pregnant employees if that employer also provides comparable accommodations to non-pregnant employees who become temporarily unable to perform their jobs without the accommodation.
The case – Young v. United Parcel Service – was brought by Peggy Young, a UPS delivery driver in Landover, Maryland. In 2006, UPS denied Young’s request for a light duty assignment after Young was instructed by her medical provider to avoid lifting more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy. Although UPS had accommodated other employees who needed light duty assignments because of disability or injury, it forced Young to take an unpaid leave of absence – without health insurance – for the duration of her pregnancy. Young sued alleging pregnancy discrimination, but two lower courts ruled against her. The Supreme Court will now decide whether the PDA requires employers who provide accommodations to non-pregnant employees must provide comparable accommodations to pregnant workers.
The passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 was championed by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Eleanor Smeal, then-president of NOW. The PDA explicitly recognizes discrimination against pregnant women as a form of sex discrimination and prevents employers from legally discriminating against pregnant women in hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, career development, or benefits. The PDA expanded economic opportunities for women, helped women maintain job stability, protected women against lost wages and costs associated with job loss, and contributed to families’ overall financial well-being. Yet, pregnancy discrimination in the workplace persists. A report released last summer by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) demonstrates that many pregnant women are not given even basic accommodations during pregnancy, and many pregnant workers—especially those in lower-paying jobs or jobs traditionally held by men—are fired or forced to take unpaid leave when they request these adjustments.
“It’s time to put the Dark Ages behind us. Women are still losing their jobs because of pregnancy. Employers routinely accommodate non-pregnancy-related disabilities as a matter of course, but pregnant workers are still second-class citizens in too many workplaces,” said Emily Martin, NWLC Vice-President and General Counsel. “If a worker has a medical need for accommodation because of pregnancy, all too often she is forced to make an impossible choice: risk her own health and pregnancy to keep a job, or lose her income at the moment she can least afford it. These women and their families pay a steep price. It’s time for the Supreme Court to clarify the law and put a stop to employers pushing pregnant workers out of work.”
The Supreme Court is only the latest institution to weigh in on pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC is working on new guidelines that would clarify employment issues related to pregnancy under the PDA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and several state and local governments, including most recently Delaware, have passed laws to require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees, such as allowing a worker to sit on a stool rather than stand, permission to carry water and food on the job, and re-assignment to temporary light duty. Young’s case also led Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to pass the “Reasonable Accommodations for Disabilities Due to Pregnancy Act.”
President Obama at the White House Summit on Working Families last month also called on Congress to act on the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which would clarify that pregnant employees are guaranteed the same workplace protections that are in place for other workers temporarily unable to perform job duties without reasonable accommodations. The PWFA would also prohibit an employer from forcing a pregnant worker to use unpaid leave if she is able to work with a reasonable accommodation.
Media Resources: Washington Post 7/3/14; National Women’s Law Center 7/2/14; Think Progress 7/2/14; SCOTUS Blog 7/1/14; Feminist Newswire 2/3/14; Feminist Majority 10/31/13; NBC Washington 5/17/13;