The Supreme Court Should Say ‘No’ to Pregnancy Discrimination

| Dec 3, 2014

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear Peggy Young v. United Parcel Service (UPS) this week, a case that could help secure — or erode — pregnant workers’ right to equal treatment. A ruling against Young could pose a significant threat to the health and economic security of women and their families.

It’s almost unfathomable that women in this country are still fired or forced out of their jobs because they become pregnant, and that there’s any question that pregnancy discrimination is illegal. And yet, here we are.

Peggy Young was a part-time driver for UPS when she became pregnant in 2006. Young mostly dealt with light packages, but her job description called for her to lift up to 70 pounds. So when her medical provider recommended that she not lift more than 20 pounds, she asked UPS for “light duty.” It seemed an especially reasonable request since the company had a policy of offering light duty to employees when they were temporarily unable to fulfill their responsibilities for other reasons. But UPS denied Young’s request, forcing her to take unpaid leave and go without her employer-provided health coverage.

Young challenged UPS’s decision in court, alleging that by denying her a reasonable accommodation while modifying job assignments for similarly abled employees, the company was violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA). The PDA requires that pregnant women be treated the same as other workers who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.” Lower courts ruled in favor of UPS, and Young appealed to the Supreme Court, which will now decide whether UPS broke the law.

Young’s story is, unfortunately, not unusual, as reflected in the number of pregnancy discrimination claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Supreme Court’s decision will determine if, and in what circumstances, an employer that accommodates non-pregnant employees with work limitations must also accommodate pregnant employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. There is much at stake for the health and economic well-being of America’s women and their families.

Women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce and are breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of families. And even though many women are able to continue working throughout their pregnancies without job modifications, some find themselves needing minor accommodations — such as lifting lighter loads than usual, being able to stay hydrated by carrying a water bottle, taking bathroom breaks or avoiding stooping — due to the physical effects of pregnancy or complications that create temporary physical limitations.

When employers deny equal treatment to these women, they force workers like Peggy Young to make an impossible choice between jeopardizing their families’ financial security and following their doctors’ advice for a healthy pregnancy. To emphasize that very point, the National Partnership led a group of 12 organizations committed to improving maternal and infant health in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. The brief called on the Court to protect the health of pregnant workers by affirming equal treatment.

There is no question that the authors of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act intended to prohibit unequal treatment for pregnant workers. No employer should be allowed to act as if it is exempt from the law. A decision against Young would further entrench discrimination and make it more difficult for women to participate fully and equally in the workplace — and families and the country would suffer. Instead, the Court should uphold the law and signal that pregnancy discrimination in all its forms is illegal.