By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff
The Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion yesterday in the landmark pregnancy discrimination case Peggy Young v. United Parcel Service. At issue is whether or not the company violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978.
In short, the news is good for women. The Supreme Court pushed the case back to a lower court, giving Peggy Young another chance to prove that the company discriminated against her. “We think it’s a big win for Peggy Young,” said Samuel Bagenstos, Young’s lawyer at the Supreme Court. “We think it’s a big win for pregnant workers around the country.”
This decision tells employers that if you are accommodating most non- pregnant workers with injuries or disabilities, while refusing to accommodate most pregnant workers who need it, you are likely violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act by placing a significant burden on pregnant workers.
However, individual pregnant workers may still face uncertainty about their rights in the specific contexts of their own workplaces. Pregnant workers’ rights also vary by zipcode. In Pennsylvania, for example, certain workers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh currently have more protections against pregnancy discrimination in the workplace than elsewhere in the state, though that could change if a proposed bill passes into law.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act 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 or forced to exhaust paid or unpaid leave 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, like Peggy Young.
When Ms. Young told UPS she was pregnant, UPS required her to get a doctor’s note “listing her restrictions,” which included her doctor’s directive to not lift more than 20 pounds. Ms. Young was otherwise willing to continue her regular duties, but Ms. Young was advised that she could not work while under a lifting restriction because she was “too much of a liability.”
Meanwhile, UPS regularly provided so-called “light duty” and similar accommodations to people with disabilities and people with on-the-job injuries. They even accommodated workers who had lost their commercial drivers’ licenses as a result of DUI convictions.
The Young opinion is encouraging step toward protecting pregnant workers from discrimination, but it also underscores the need to clarify protections for pregnant workers through “reasonable accommodations” policy.
The federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would better protect pregnant workers throughout the country. On the state level, the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would clarify and standardize protections currently enjoyed only by certain workers across the state.
Pennsylvania: Patchwork of Protections
Currently, only certain workers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are protected by reasonable accommodations legislation. Pennsylvania has an opportunity, though, to extend those protections statewide through the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PPWFA).
The PPWFA would require a covered employer to make reasonable accommodations related to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions unless those accommodations would prove an undue hardship on the business.
“Pregnant women in Pennsylvania should not lose their jobs or suffer the consequences of working under conditions that put their health at risk because their employers deny their requests for reasonable accommodations,” said Amal Bass, staff attorney with the Women’s Law Project. “The Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would protect these workers from having to choose between the health of their pregnancies and keeping their jobs.”
The Pregnant Workers Act is part of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, a legislative package of women’s health and equality bills introduced by the Women’s Health Caucus, a bipartisan, prochoice group of lawmakers in the Pennsylvania legislature. So far, 14 bills have been introduced through the Agenda, and three have already passed.
The Women’s Law Project signed an amici curiae brief filed by Legal Momentum and law professors Joanna Grossman and Deborah Brake in support of Young.
From the brief: “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.”