The United States Supreme Court recently established a new test to evaluate whether an employer discriminates against a pregnant employee under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) when it denies an accommodation or adjustment to the employee’s duties. The case (Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc.) involves a pregnant delivery driver for United Parcel Service (UPS) who in 2006 was denied a light duty assignment when her physician stated she could no longer perform the lifting requirements of her position. The Court found that UPS’s denial may have been discriminatory, concluding that an employee can survive summary judgment and reach a jury by showing “sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s ‘legitimate, nondiscriminatory’ reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather when considered along with the burden imposed give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.”

The case serves as a reminder of an employer’s obligations to its pregnant employees. Employers should review and revise their policies and procedures to ensure pregnant employees are treated in a non-discriminatory way.

Case background

Peggy Young worked as a part-time driver for UPS. The company required drivers to lift up to 70 pounds (or 150 pounds with assistance). After Ms. Young became pregnant, her doctor limited her lifting to 20 pounds during her first 20 weeks of pregnancy and 10 pounds thereafter. At the time, UPS provided light duty positions for: (1) drivers who became disabled or injured on the job; (2) drivers who lost their Department of Transportation (DOT) certification; and (3) employees with disabilities covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). UPS told Young that because she did not fall under any of the three categories, she was not eligible for a light duty assignment.

Ms. Young sued UPS for discrimination based on its failure to accommodate her pregnancy-related lifting restriction. The lower courts agreed with UPS and dismissed Young’s case concluding that the PDA did not require accommodation1. Young appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s decision

The Court considered the following clause in the PDA: “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.” The Court focused on the assertion that other UPS employees had received the very accommodation that Ms. Young sought: temporary transfer to a light duty position. By a 6 to 3 vote, the Court held that there was 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.”

The Court concluded that the burden-shifting analysis that applies to other discrimination cases (from McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green) also applies to a claim of pregnancy discrimination in the accommodation context. An employee-plaintiff must show that the refusal to accommodate was the result of an intentional act. Ultimately, the employee must establish that the employer’s offered reason for denying the accommodation is a pretext for pregnancy discrimination, by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s ‘legitimate, nondiscriminatory’ reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden.”

Effect of other laws and EEOC guidance

While this decision represents a significant interpretation of the PDA, its impact on employer policies and practices may be limited in light of other laws. For example, the ADA Amendments Act in 2008 broadened the definition of disability so that temporary conditions, like pregnancy, can now be considered disabilities.2  Likewise, many state laws (like Washington’s Law Against Discrimination) already define “disability” to include temporary conditions such as pregnancy, thereby extending accommodation requirements to pregnant women. California law expressly requires accommodation for pregnancy.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court’s decision in Young did not give deference to the EEOC’s July 2014 guidance that employers must accommodate pregnancy-related limitations. The Court noted that the EEOC did not sufficiently explain the basis for the guidance and that the EEOC was inconsistent with the government’s prior positions on the subject.  Employers should expect the EEOC to review and revise its guidance in light of the Court’s opinion.

Implications and practical considerations

The Court’s decision has attracted considerable attention. The basic take-away for employers is to revisit how they handle an accommodation request from pregnant employees. Unless there is a compelling reason not to do so, employers should provide accommodations to the same extent as they would be for disabled employees and those with work-related injuries.  

In the meantime, we recommend that employers do the following:

  • Review and update handbook policies regarding accommodations, light duty, leave of absence, and others to ensure policies provide adequate protections for pregnant employees;
  • Provide training to managers and supervisors to appropriately identify and respond to any requests for accommodations from pregnant employees;
  • When a pregnant employee needs an adjustment in the workplace, be prepared to engage in the traditional “interactive process” that employers use in the disability context; and
  • Review and update policies regarding light duty positions, including the bases for shifting marginal (non-essential) functions from one position to another. If light duty positions are available to some employees, such as those with an open workers’ compensation claim, consider expanding the policies to include pregnant women. Employers might consider limiting the amount of time any employees can work in such a position as a way to ensure it is temporary and available to others when they might need it.

Anyone who has questions regarding this decision or its own policies and practices should feel free to contact a DWT employment lawyer including the contacts identified with this advisory.