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Can “Pregnancy Blind” Company Policies Constitute Pregnancy Discrimination? U.S. Supreme Court to Decide.

Can “Pregnancy Blind” Company Policies Constitute Pregnancy Discrimination? U.S. Supreme Court to Decide.

Image via Tuckner Sipser

By Adrian Alvarez

Goldberg-Robb Attorney

Does United Parcel Services discriminate against a pregnant worker when it refuses to assign her to “light duty” while she’s pregnant, but assigns light duty to a worker who breaks his arm on the job? This is exactly what the Supreme Court agreed to decide earlier this month in Young v. United Parcel Services.

UPS has a policy of offering “light duty” to some employees. But in 2006, when Peggy Sue Young–a part-time driver who sometimes lifted heavy packages for work– needed light duty due to her pregnancy, her request for accommodation (accompanied by a doctor’s note) was denied. Instead, she was placed on leave without pay and, as a result, temporarily lost her health benefits. She sued for discrimination, and after losing her case in the Fourth Circuit, she asked the Supreme Court to decide whether UPS acted unlawfully. 

The question is whether UPS’s policy treated pregnant workers differently from other non-pregnant workers in a way that violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. It is undisputed that UPS allows light duty for three categories of employees: those who suffered on-the-job injuries, those considered “disabled” under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and those who have lost government certification to do their normal job. But if a pregnant worker does not fall into any of those categories, does UPS still have an obligation to accommodate her need for light duty?

Young argues that the PDA requires employers to treat pregnant women the same as non-pregnant employees who are “similar in their ability to or inability to work.” So UPS was required to accommodate her once the company decided to accommodate certain non-pregnant employees who were similarly unable to do their regular work (e.g., for health reasons). But UPS says that its policy does not violate the law because its light duty policy is pregnancy-blind: it treats pregnant and non-pregnant workers the same and accommodates only those who fall within the three categories of workers identified.

If UPS’s interpretation of the PDA prevails, corporations would avoid any liability simply by ignoring pregnant workers. The only corporate policies that could violate the statute would be those that specifically single out pregnant workers in a negative way—and you can be sure that no rational corporation will do that.   

That cannot be the law. Congress specifically passed the PDA to overturn a Supreme Court case called General Electric Company v. Gilbert, 429 U.S. 125 (1976), that held a pregnancy-blind disability benefits plan did not discriminate even though it failed to cover pregnancy-related disabilities. The law was clearly intended to address situations where, like Young, a pregnant employee is treated less favorably than similarly situated non-pregnant employees.

So-called “pregnancy-blind” employment policies impact men and women differently. They leave out a relatively common scenario that can be experienced only by women, and never men.  And this difference in impact can be discriminatory and should be seen as illegal discrimination under the law. Let’s hope the Court sees it that way too.