Young v. United Parcel Service: Employers May Have To Accommodate Pregnancy Restrictions

headshot of jens schmidtshari lane headshotBy Jens Schmidt and Shari Lane

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids a covered employer “to discriminate against any individual with respect to . . . terms, conditions or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s  . . . sex.” In 1978, Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (”PDA”), which added new language to Title VII regarding pregnancy.  The PDA states that:

 

“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 or inability to work . . . .”

Historically, employers have understood that language to mean they must provide light duty and/or a leave of absence to pregnant employees if they provide light duty and/or a leave of absence to all non-pregnant employees.  By way of example, consider an employer who – in addition to legally required disability accommodations – allows an employee to work from home after he sprains his ankle in a skiing accident, when his daughter’s school is closed, and when he’s waiting for an appliance delivery.  On the face of it, the PDA would require that employer to make the same allowances for a pregnant employee whose doctor ordered bed rest during her pregnancy.  On the other hand, if that employer only allows working from home as required by law, and rejects all other requests to work from home, then no accommodation is necessary for the pregnant employee.

In July, 2014, the EEOC issued guidance on the PDA which contradicted this historical understanding, and significantly broadened the scope of employers’ obligations under the PDA, suggesting that employers are required to treat pregnancy restrictions the same way they treat disability accommodation issues.  A recent Supreme Court decision supports the EEOC’s guidance.

Young, a driver for UPS, became pregnant, and her doctor recommended that she not be required to lift more than 20 pounds for the first 20 weeks of pregnancy and no more than 10 pounds thereafter.  UPS required drivers such as Young to be able to move packages weighing up to 70 pounds and to assist in moving packages weighing up to 150 pounds.

UPS’s occupational health manager informed Young that she could not return to work during her pregnancy because she could not meet UPS’s lifting requirements. The manager also determined that Young did not qualify for a temporary alternative work assignment.  Young consequently stayed home without pay during most of the time she was pregnant and eventually lost her employee medical coverage.

UPS did have policies which accommodated employees who were temporarily unable to work for reasons other than pregnancy.  In a collective bargaining agreement, UPS promised to provide temporary alternative work assignments to employees who were unable to perform their normal work assignments due to an on the job injury, to comply with requests for a reasonable accommodation for a disability under the ADA, and to give non-driving jobs to drivers who had lost their Department of Transportation certifications.

However, there were also workers that UPS did not accommodate, such as workers who had an off-the-job injury, and that is the crux of the dispute: UPS argues that its policies are not discriminatory because they do not target pregnant workers, since there are non-pregnant workers who are treated the same as pregnant workers; Young argues that UPS had an affirmative duty to try to accommodate pregnant workers if UPS accommodates any other workers.

Young sued UPS for violating the PDA. A federal district court dismissed her claim, agreeing with UPS’s interpretation of the PDA, and a federal appeals court upheld the dismissal.  On March 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court reversed the lower courts, ruling that Young had presented enough evidence to proceed with her claim of pregnancy discrimination.  The Court ruled that all Young had to do was present evidence that (1) she was a member of a protected class (pregnant workers), (2) she requested accommodation, (3) UPS did not provide accommodation, and (4) UPS accommodated others similar in their ability to work.  Then it would be up to UPS to show that there were legitimate, nondiscriminatory, nonpretextual reasons for the different treatment of pregnant workers.  The Court sent the case back to the lower courts for further proceedings.

The significance of Young v. United Parcel Service is that it interpreted PDA’s prohibition on discrimination against pregnant workers to include a requirement that an employer has to provide reasonable accommodations to keep them at work.  This in effect treats pregnancy as a disability entitled to the same protections provided by the Americans With Disabilities Act – in spite of the fact that the Interpretive Guidance appended to the federal regulations on the ADA expressly states that pregnancy is not a disability (though the Guidance does say a pregnancy-related medical condition “that substantially limits a major life activity” may qualify as a disability).

This is especially significant for small Oregon employers.  Typically, Oregon laws have been amended to track changes in federal law that are more beneficial to employees than state law.  The PDA and the ADA govern employers with twelve or more employees.  Oregon disability laws require accommodation by employers with six or more employees, and prohibit discrimination by employers with one or more employees.

If pregnancy discrimination will soon be defined under Oregon law to include failure to accommodate pregnancy restrictions, all Oregon employers, no matter how small, will be required to accommodate pregnancy restrictions if they accommodate any other work restriction or medical condition.

For assistance in reviewing or developing workplace policies, feel free to contact one of our Labor & Employment attorneys at 503.242.0000.