Roberts Court Takes Up Issue of Accommodating Pregnant Workers

The Supreme Court will start next term right where it left off this summer—by scrutinizing the rights of women in the workplace. Specifically, the Court will consider the case of Peggy Young, a part-time delivery driver for UPS whose discrimination claim puts a spotlight on the vulnerabilities many workers face if they become pregnant.

While an employee with UPS, Young became pregnant, and her doctor told her not to lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy. Young approached her employer for a light-duty assignment as a temporary accommodation for the medical restrictions related to her pregnancy. UPS refused her request, saying the company had a “pregnancy-blind” policy of giving light-duty job assignments to people who are injured on the job, those who are disabled under federal disability rights law, or those who have lost their federal driver certification. Because UPS wouldn’t accommodate Young, she was forced to take unpaid leave for the rest of her pregnancy and, as a result, lost wages and her health insurance coverage just a few months prior to the birth of her child.

Young sued, claiming UPS’s refusal to offer her a light-duty assignment to accommodate her pregnancy violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which requires that employers treat pregnant employees “similar in their ability or inability to work” as non-pregnant employees when deciding accommodations. Young and her attorneys argued that UPS’s “pregnancy-blind” policy violated the law, because by denying Young an accommodation available to others, it treated Young, a pregnant worker, differently than her non-pregnant co-workers who were similar in their inability to work. Young lost at the district court, which held that companies like UPS could adopt rules that allow employees similar to Young to go on light duty, while blocking Young from receiving the same accommodation for her pregnancy, without violating the PDA.

While Young was litigating her claims, Congress amended another law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, to require employers to make reasonable accommodations for a broad range of temporary disabilities that would affect Young’s claims in her case. However, those amendments were not in place when Young sued, leaving open the question of if, and how, the amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act work with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to require employers to accommodate workplace requests like Young’s.

It’s an important question to answer, but given the Roberts Court’s open hostility toward the rights of workers, and especially women workers, some hoped the Court would not grant review. The Obama administration urged the Court not to take the case, saying that while the lower courts were wrong to deny Young’s claims, Supreme Court action at this time would be premature. The Obama administration argued that since Young’s case, Congress has augmented the law while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is finalizing new guidelines for employers in accommodating pregnant workers. The lower courts need time to consider those changes, and employers need time to react as well, the Obama administration argued.

Despite the urging of the Obama administration, or maybe in spite of it, the Roberts Court took up the case anyway.

Three-quarters of women entering the labor force will be pregnant on the job at some point in their lives, and issues of workplace accommodations for pregnant workers increasingly affect low-wage women workers. So this is a big case, and one that no matter the ruling will have a wide reach. It’s also a case that wades into issues of gender stereotyping, gender-neutral leave policies, and cultural assumptions about mothers’ and fathers’ “differential attachments to the labor force,” including the way a cultural reverence for pregnancy and new mothers contributes to instances of pregnancy discrimination. These are murky waters for the conservatives on the Roberts Court.

Given this backdrop, there’s a dangerous but tempting argument teed up for the justices. Similar to the “post-racial” arguments made to support gutting affirmative action in Fisher v. Texas, UPS and its supporters have attempted to make a “post-sex discrimination” argument and claim Young wants pregnant workers to be treated more favorably than any other protected class covered by the workplace anti-discrimination law Title VII. Furthermore, they argue, the policy in place at UPS was a result of an extensively negotiated collective bargaining agreement. That means the conservatives on the Court could side with UPS, leaving a majority of women workers even more vulnerable to workplace discrimination in the name of deferring to collective bargaining agreements.

The Court will hear the case in its next term, beginning in October. A date for arguments has not yet been set.

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  • kitler

    Interesting. The folks over on Secular Pro Life are arguing that pregnancy has no physical drawbacks because two people ran a full marathon while at 34 weeks.

    • Unicorn Farm

      Dumb as a box of hair, all of them.

      • Shan

        Is that the legal designation for such types, then?

        • Unicorn Farm

          Pursuant to the Inanimate Object Intelligence Hierarchy Comparison Act of 2012, yes.

        • fiona64

          I also use “sack of hammers” for comparative analysis.

          And, occasionally, “so stupid they couldn’t pour water from a boot if instructions were written on the heel.”

    • lorimakesquilts

      Jeebus. So things like almost dying aren’t physical drawbacks? Well I guess not, since there’s always life support to keep the fetus’ host viable.

      • kitler

        “Pregnancy is just like breathing’ is the argument they like to make.A poster by the name of ‘argent’ flounced from a conversation with me last night because I described, in detail, how an embryo dampens a woman’s immune system, drills into her blood vessel, extracts iron/sugar/calcium from her body, and injects toxic biowastes into her blood for her kidneys to process.

        She had compared pregnancy to a small tap on the knee, as far as side effects.

        All of my information is factual, but these people don’t like facts.

      • Everybodhi

        Has a man ever died from not getting a hard on?
        What exactly is the health threat, disability or death that results from this medical condition?

        • fiona64

          Yep. I had one nutter tell me that Viagra was necessary medication because a man might be depressed if he couldn’t get it up, and depressed men might commit suicide. BCPs, of course, were considered an unnecessary “lifestyle drug” by the same nutter … and yes, the nutter was male.

      • Everybodhi

        Yes, Lori, I’m talking about impotence, I keep hearing the it’s a medical condition while pregnancy is not, just wondering what exactly the health risks are of not having a hard on.

    • StealthGaytheist

      Let me guess…the people making those claims are men.

      • kitler

        Women and men.

        • Jennifer Starr

          Women who have never been pregnant, I assume.

          • kitler

            Or women who fetishize pergnancy, like our resident catholic nutjobs

        • StealthGaytheist

          Sad and disgusting. Menstrual periods have physical drawbacks for millions of women, so ut stands to reasin that pregnancy would.

    • lady_black

      Because EVERY pregnancy is EXACTLY LIKE every other pregnancy. Pregnancy is like a factory assembly line. /s

  • fiona64

    Well, queue another “5 male Catholic justices” majority that says pregnancy is a state of perfect wellness and so no accommodations should be necessary on the job, in 3 .. 2 .. 1 …

    Oh, and a slew of DudeBros arguing the same thing.

    • blfdjlj

      5 white men will argue that, as Reid said. Oh wait, there is Justice Thomas as well.

  • blfdjlj

    This decision should be between a woman and her employer, without government interference.