On March 25, 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Young v. United Parcel Service. It was anticipated that the decision would provide clarity regarding the extent to which an employer must provide accommodations to employees with work restrictions related to their pregnancy. However, instead of a clear guide as to how pregnancy accommodation should be approached in the workplace, the Court established a test that will be challenging to analyze in the courtroom – not to mention extremely difficult to apply in the boardroom. Nonetheless, Young should give employers pause to review their established policies to ensure they are in line with Young and other, already-established accommodations laws. 

BACKGROUND 

Young was a delivery driver for UPS, which position required that she be able to lift 70 pounds. Young became pregnant in 2006, and was put on a lifting restriction not to exceed 20 pounds by her doctor. UPS had three separate accommodations policies which provided accommodations for certain categories of workers with work limitations (including certain employees with off-the-job causes of their limitations, as well as those with on-the-job causes). 

However, none of the accommodations policies applied to pregnant employees that could not perform their normal duties because of pregnancy. As a result, Young was placed on unpaid leave for the remainder of her pregnancy. Young filed suit against UPS claiming that its policy violated the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) because it provided work accommodations to non-pregnant employees who had work limitations but did not offer similar accommodations to pregnant employees with similar work limitations. 

UPS argued that its policy was pregnancy-neutral and that providing Young with light duty because of her pregnancy would have been giving her preferential treatment in violation of the collective bargaining agreement. The district court entered judgment for UPS, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court accepted review, and this decision followed. 

THE COURT’S NEW STANDARD 

The Court was presented in Young with “a workplace policy that distinguishes between pregnant and non-pregnant workers in light of characteristics not related to pregnancy.” Young argued that pregnant employees must be given the same accommodations provided to any other employee within the company - even if other, non-pregnant employees are denied accommodations. 

The Court dubbed this the “most-favored-nation” argument. UPS argued that pregnant employees may be denied accommodations as long as accommodations were also denied to other employees within the same “facially neutral” category as pregnant women (such as off-the-job injuries or conditions). 

The Court rejected both arguments and, instead, held that an employer’s accommodations policy must not “impose a significant burden on pregnant workers” unless the employer has legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons for implementation of the policy that are “sufficiently strong to justify the burden . . .” This analysis, of course, must be carried out on a very specific, case-by-case basis. 

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? 

Without providing its much-awaited clarity, what does Young mean for employers as employers craft workplace accommodations policies that are compliant and also fair for all of their workers? 

Surprisingly, Young may have little to no effect in some jurisdictions. First, various states have already enacted legislation that defines the extent to which accommodations must be provided for pregnant employees. For example, as part of Minnesota’s Women’s Economic Security Act, Minnesota requires employers with more than 21 employees to provide certain accommodations to pregnant employees if requested, including – as was at issue in Young - accommodations for restrictions on lifting over 20 pounds. 

Even in those states that do not have specific statutes related to pregnancy accommodations, the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, may require employers to provide accommodations to pregnant employees with lifting or other limitations arising out of the pregnancy. Indeed, the ADAAA made clear that lifting is a major life activity that – when substantially limited – will qualify as a disability. Further, after the ADAAA, it is clearer that even temporary limitations can qualify as disabilities. 

WHAT CAN EMPLOYERS DO? 

Although Young does not provide a one-size-fits-all guidance for employers across the country, employers can take the following proactive measures that will help them to stay in continued compliance after Young

  • Review accommodations policies, especially those which provide for light duty assignments, to make sure they are based on legitimate business needs; and
  • Provide training to managers and supervisors regarding pregnant employees’ rights to accommodations and how to respond to pregnant employees’ requests for accommodations.

The accommodations laws applicable in each employer’s jurisdiction are often times intertwined and can be difficult to navigate. Following the above steps can help set an employer off in the right direction, but whether you are located in a jurisdiction where the requirements for pregnancy (and other) accommodations are more clearly defined or whether jurisdiction-specific legislation is lacking, Young serves as a good reminder to review your related policies with counsel to ensure continued compliance.