Employers eye Supreme Court pregnancy accommodation case

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The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments Wednesday on a legal challenge that could affect the future framework of employer pregnancy benefits and associated work accommodations.

In Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the Supreme Court will answer whether, and in what circumstances, an employer must provide work accommodations to pregnant employees. According to the high court’s calendar, the question presented includes a look at whether the same accommodations should be offered to both pregnant, nonpregnant employees “who are similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Court documents indicate that Peggy Young, a UPS driver, became pregnant in fall 2006. Young’s medical provider gave her a weight lifting restriction, which limited her ability to perform her job’s daily tasks. But her request for an accommodation was denied, according to court filings.

See also: Varied response to EEOC’s new pregnancy guidance

In a statement offered to EBN, UPS says that the 2007 accommodation policy at issue in Young was “lawful and consistently applied at the time to all employees.”

Since then, UPS notes that state and federal regulatory guidance began to change, recognizing pregnancy as a disability. As a result, the logistics giant says it has “reviewed its policy and elected to voluntarily change its approach to pregnancy accommodations.”

“The new policy will serve to strengthen UPS’s commitments to supporting women in the workplace and to treating all workers fairly,” the company explains.

Meanwhile, Liz Watson, senior counsel and director of workplace justice at the National Women's Law Center, says the past challenge is targeting what’s already mandated under federal law.

“Because employers are required under the law to make those adjustments for workers with temporary disabilities, who are similar in their ability to work to pregnant workers, they have a legal obligation under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to do so,” she explains.

Felicity Fowler, a partner in Haynes and Boone’s labor and employment practice group, says that 2009 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act have already expanded the reach of the disabled employee designation.

“From a practical standpoint, there is a lot of talk about this accommodation and whether it should be read into the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, but I think the ADA – with its changes in 2009 – was a game changer and employers should be looking at the issue already,” she says.

And these pregnancy workplace accommodations may be an easy fix. “Typically low wage jobs tend to be less flexible, and [can be] physically demanding jobs. At some point in pregnancy, workers need accommodations like a lifting restriction to be honored, or staying off a high ladder, or a stool to sit on a during a 8-hour shift,” notes Watson.

For employers, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released new enforcement guidance in July on how employers are to accommodate their pregnant workforce. The enforcement agency said that its new rules meld together provisions of the PDA and the ADA, as it pertains to pregnant workers. Employers have traditionally incorporated distinctions for pregnant workers and other medical situations, such as job-related injuries.

But, Fowler explains that most companies should already be attuned to this issue – her clients are already looking into it, she notes.

“When we’re talking to our clients, we’re basically at this point assuming that most conditions can easily fall into a disability,” Fowler says. “Therefore, we’ve got to accommodate or we’ve got to at least go through the interactive process and think about accommodating.”

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