Employment Update: Supreme Court Clarifies the Pregnancy Discrimination Act

Articles & Publications

April 5, 2016

May 12, 2015 

Previously, in "Employment Update: Illinois Enacts Pregnancy Fairness Act," we addressed whether pregnancy is considered a disability under the law and, if so, to what extent. The United States Supreme Court, in Young v. UPS, recently chimed in on this issue and the extent of coverage under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ("PDA").

Peggy Young was a United Parcel Service (UPS) driver when she became pregnant and claimed, because of her pregnancy, she was unable to lift anything over 20 pounds. At the time, UPS’s policy provided disability accommodations to drivers who became temporarily disabled for a number of reasons, but not for limitations which were the result of pregnancy alone. Thus, pursuant to its established policy, UPS declined Young’s request for an accommodation.

Young sued UPS alleging violations of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act ("PDA"), which provides: (1) pregnancy bias is a form of discrimination based on sex; and (2) female workers who become pregnant must be treated the same as other workers who can perform the same kind of job. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e), et seq. Plaintiff argued that if she had torn a muscle or broken a bone, for example, she would have been put on "light duty" under UPS’s policy. However, since her pregnancy was the sole cause of her weight-lifting restriction, UPS violated the PDA and discriminated against her when it wrongfully refused to accommodate her. The Court was presented with the question of whether, and in what circumstances, an employer who provides work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with limitations must also provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are "similar in their ability or inability to work."

According to 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." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k). Young argued that pregnant workers should receive the same accommodation when they cannot perform their normal jobs as any other worker would receive for any other condition that similarly impairs their ability to work. The federal government, who submitted the supporting amicus brief, agreed. This approach, she argued, was consistent with the statute, which prohibits different treatment between pregnant and otherwise disabled workers. Thus, for example, an employer should treat a pregnant employee, who cannot stand for more than four hours, the same as a male employee with back issues, who has the same restriction.

UPS argued that this portion of the PDA only functioned to define sex bias to include pregnancy discrimination, and did not provide a legal basis that would require employers for offer additional benefits to pregnant woman.

The Court rejected both parties’ arguments; it found that Young’s interpretation was too broad, and UPS’s reading of the statute was too narrow.  The Court went on to clarify the scope of the statute. The PDA outlines the elements a female worker must show in claims  of pregnancy bias:

  1. That she is within the protected group (i.e., pregnant);
  2. That she requested accommodation(s) when she was unable to perform her job normally;
  3. That her employer refused to accommodate her; and
  4. That her employer provided an accommodation to other workers at her job who had a similar temporary working restriction.

If this initial showing is met, then under the Court’s framework, the employer must show that its workplace policy was not biased against pregnant workers, but rather had a neutral business rationale. Satisfying this burden, an employee would then need to show that the employer’s purported rationale is, in fact, merely a pretext for bias. The employee may also demonstrate that the workplace policy puts a "significant burden" on female workers, and that the policy is "not sufficiently strong" to justify that burden. In this sense, the Court provided that the inquiry is an evaluation of the negative impact on female workers, rather than attempting to determine whether the policy is intentionally biased against pregnant women.

Additionally, it is worth noting that many states have enacted their own pregnancy discrimination statutes. The Illinois Pregnancy Accommodation Act was amended in early 2015 to include specific provisions regarding accommodations for pregnant workers, including the provision of a "temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position" and "reassignment to a vacant position." See 775 ILCS 5/2102(J)(1). The Act also provides a rebuttable presumption that an accommodation will not impose an undue hardship if the employer provides or would be required to provide a similar accommodation to similarly situated employees. See 775 ILCS 5/2-102(J). To date, no cases have addressed these recent amendments. Nevertheless, employers should be aware of recent statutory developments and corresponding case law to determine and continue to evaluate their obligations to pregnant employees.