The US Supreme Court has heard oral argument on the question of whether, and in what circumstances, an employer providing work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations must provide comparable work accommodations to pregnant employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. The Court is expected to rule by mid-summer 2015.

The plaintiff is an employee of United Parcel Service (UPS), and in the course of her employment, was regularly expected to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds. After becoming pregnant, she was advised not to lift anything weighing above 20 pounds (and later in her pregnancy, 10 pounds). Upon informing her supervisors of this condition, she was informed that UPS policy requires the ability to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds as a condition of employment. The only exceptions to this policy are for those injured on the job, those who have a statutorily defined disability, and those who have a medical reason preventing a person from driving — persons encompassed by one of these exceptions qualify for “light duty” and are not required to lift heavy packages. The petitioner was forced to take unpaid leave as a result.

The petitioner brought a lawsuit alleging that UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which requires employers to treat pregnant women equally with “other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” The petitioner argues that many people encompassed by the three exceptions to the lifting requirement are similar in their ability or inability to work – ie, they may only be able to lift lighter objects, but are otherwise capable of performing work-related tasks.

In support of the petitioner, numerous members of Congress, and the United States Justice Department, have filed amicus curiae briefs, urging the Court to accept her argument and rule in her favour. UPS noted in its brief that it would allow pregnant employees to qualify for light duty beginning in 2015.

Actions for employers

Employers should review their policies involving pregnant employees. They should consider revising policies to include pregnancy as a condition where a policy provides for medical exceptions to work-related tasks that could be impeded by pregnancy.