From the Owens and Millsaps Blog

What to Expect (in the Workplace) When You’re Expecting

The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) has long prohibited employers from discriminating against an employee based on “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” To do so, the law says, is a form of sex discrimination. Nearly 40 year after its enactment, however, the scope of that protection – whom it applies to and under what circumstances – is still being settled.

The PDA amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and generally protects pregnant employees from discrimination by employers in hiring, firing, and everything in between. Basically, employers are required to treat pregnant employees the same as any other employee or potential employee. The first part of the Act declares that pregnancy discrimination is a form of sex discrimination and, thus, covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The second part requires employees to treat pregnant women “the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has provided examples of what this means: For one, an employer may not refuse to hire an applicant because she is pregnant, as long as she is able to do the job. Similarly, pregnant workers should receive the same consideration as other workers in regard to promotions, salary, benefits, training, and other employment issues.

If a pregnant employee has a pregnancy-related illness, she should have the same access to sick leave as other employees. An employee with a pregnancy-related medical condition that temporarily affects her ability to work should be treated like other employees in similar non-pregnancy-relate situations.

In some cases, other laws come into play. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers protections to workers for some temporary pregnancy-related disabilities just as it protects non-pregnant workers with temporary or permanent disabilities.

But how to apply the law in specific circumstances has remained unclear. The Supreme Court provided new guidance recently in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., when it laid out a framework for applying the second provision when an employer accommodates workers in some circumstances but not in others.

The case was brought by Peggy Young, a UPS driver who became pregnant. Due to prior miscarriages, her doctor instructed her not to lift more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy. Although her actual duties typically involved only light lifting, her job description called for lifting up to 70 pounds. Rather than accommodate the restriction, Young’s employer told her she could not work; as a result, Young also lost her medical coverage.

In her lawsuit, Young claimed UPS accommodated other employees who had similar work restrictions due to disabilities of various kinds – workers who had been injured on the job, who had certain disabilities covered by the ADA, or who had lost their driver certification with the Department of Transportation. Young claimed accommodating those workers while not accommodating her amounted to pregnancy discrimination. UPS argued that it did not.

The Court came down somewhere in the middle, withholding judgment on whether UPS discriminated against Young when it refused to transfer her to lighter-duty work and instead setting out the framework the lower courts should use in re-examining the case.

To determine whether the company’s actions amounted to discrimination, the Court said Young must start by showing that she belongs to the protected class in question; that she requested accommodation; and that the employer did not accommodate her, but did accommodate other employees who were similar in their ability or inability to work. If Young does so, then UPS has a chance to show that there was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision not to accommodate her. If that happens, Young then has an opportunity to show that UPS’s rationale is simply a pretext for discrimination.

The Court’s ruling provided some guidance, but many questions remain, and the law will certainly continue to evolve in this area. It is important that employees know their rights in the workplace, and likewise that employers are aware of their responsibilities. An experienced attorney can help analyze an employer’s policies and procedures and determine whether they are in line with current law