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Accommodating Pregnant Employees

In late March, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Young v UPS, determining that UPS may have failed to accommodate a pregnant employee's request for light duty work.  Young worked for UPS as a driver, a position that required her to lift up to 70 pounds.  After she became pregnant, Young’s doctor determined that she should not lift more than 20 pounds.  Consequently, UPS informed Young that, given her lifting restrictions, she could not work as an air driver. Although UPS offered light-duty assignments to some categories of workers pursuant to its collective bargaining agreement, Young’s pregnancy-based restriction did not fall into those approved categories, so UPS denied her request for light-duty accommodation.

The Young ruling set forth a new standard for liability under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). A plaintiff can make a prima facie “disparate treatment” pregnancy discrimination case by showing (a) she was pregnant, (b) an accommodation was requested and was denied, and (c) the requested accommodation had been made available to some non-pregnant employees.   The employer would then have the opportunity to offer a legitimate reason beyond cost or convenience for offering accommodation to the non-pregnant employees but not the plaintiff. The plaintiff can prove pretext either by showing the supposed legitimate factor led to a substantial burden on pregnant employees, in that they were excluded at higher rates than non-pregnant employees, and that the employer’s legitimate rationale for the decision was not “sufficiently strong to justify the burden.”  In light of the newly-announced standard, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for consideration and review under this standard.

The critical takeaway from the Young ruling is that UPS offered light duty work to other employees (e.g., those injured on the job), but failed to offer it to Young. Because UPS offered light duty to non-pregnant workers and did not offer it to pregnant workers, the Court held that even though UPS's policy was "pregnancy-blind," it had a disparate impact on pregnant workers and could be held to be discriminatory. While not specifically addressed in this case, it can be deduced from the Court's reasoning that if an employer does not offer any light duty work to non-pregnant employees, then it would not be required to offer light duty work to pregnant employees. Employers should be cognizant that this case did not involve a claim for disability discrimination (just pregnancy discrimination), and that an employer may still need to make a "reasonable accommodation" assessment under the ADA when deciding whether a light duty accommodation is reasonable to accommodate the employee's disability (including any pregnancy complications that may qualify as a disability under the ADA).