By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case of Young v. United Parcel Service (UPS) to determine whether the company violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978 amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by clarifying that discrimination on the basis of sex includes discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” Title VII applies to companies with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. Despite the PDA, many pregnant women have been fired after requesting temporary accommodations due to physical limitations from pregnancy and related conditions. This type of discrimination disproportionately affects low-income women working jobs with physical demands. Former Wal-Mart employee Heather Wiseman was fired after following her doctor’s recommendation to stay hydrated by carrying a water bottle at work. Victoria Serednyj was fired from a nursing home after her employer refused to excuse her from moving heavy objects, though her doctor advised she should avoid such exertion to reduce her risk of miscarriage. Amber Walker, a truck driver, was fired after asking someone to help her with heavy lifting during the later months of her pregnancy, even though the company provided similar assistance to other truck drivers with temporary physical limitations. All of these women challenged their terminations in court, and they all lost. The woman suing UPS is an employee named Peggy Young. Young requested a temporary shift in duties due to her pregnancy, and UPS refused. Yet, the company routinely accommodated similar medically-advised requests for temporary lighter duty. Reproductive health advocates are watching the case very closely.
“The case illustrates the often hostile legal and policy environment U.S. women confront on issues surrounding pregnancy,” writes Ann M. Starrs, President and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute. “Policymakers and the courts should ensure that women like Young who want to achieve a healthy pregnancy are reasonably accommodated by their employers without sacrificing their economic security.”
Law professors and women’s organizations with expertise in pregnancy discrimination law, including the Women’s Law Project, have demonstrated support for Peggy Young by filing and signing on to amici curiae briefs, also known as friend-of-the-court briefs. From the amici curiae:
“This case presents an issue of great significance for working women in the United States, who comprise nearly half the labor force. The vast majority of working women will become pregnant at some point during their working lives, and many of them will experience at least minor conflicts between job requirements or working conditions and the temporary, but real physical effects of pregnancy.”
Meanwhile, as Young’s case has been winding through the court system, national, state and local legislators have called for–and in some cases passed–policies designed to close the loophole left by the PDA. On a national level, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey has been advocating for the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA). The PWFA explicitly requires certain employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers experiencing temporary limitations stemming from pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions.
“Women make up nearly half of the work force, and in Pennsylvania, approximately 96,000 women in the work force give birth each year,” Casey said in Pennsylvania in October. “Too many women still face discrimination in the workplace during pregnancy as some employers continue to refuse to provide reasonable accommodations. My legislation would prevent employers from forcing these pregnant women out of the workplace.”
Last year, Women’s Law Project Staff Attorney Amal Bass testified before Philadelphia City Council that an increasing number of pregnant women have contacted the WLP for legal representation because of the obstacles they face at work.
“The majority of the women who have contacted the Women’s Law Project work in low-wage jobs, are having healthy pregnancies, and need only minor adjustments in the workplace as their pregnancies progress,” Bass testified.
In January, Philadelphia amended the Fair Practices Ordinance to provide reasonable accommodations protection for pregnant workers. And in October, Pittsburgh City Council passed legislation that calls for “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant women who work for the city or large city contractors. Senator Matt Smith and Rep. Mark Painter and introduced bills to extend similar protections to pregnant workers throughout the state as part of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health. The legislation has sat, untouched. Meanwhile, UPS reversed its own policy ahead of the Supreme Court hearing. According to UPS attorneys, the change of policy doesn’t mean they were wrong when they denied temporary light duty to Peggy Young.