The U.S. Supreme Court will consider yet another high-profile women’s health issue next term. In Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the justices will determine what types of accommodations employers must make for pregnant workers.

As we discussed last week, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) provides that “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.” However, the statute does not specifically address accommodations for pregnant workers.

The Facts of the Case

Peggy Young was employed as a driver for United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS) when she became pregnant. She subsequently gave her supervisor and UPS’s occupational health manager a note from her midwife recommending that she not lift over twenty pounds during her pregnancy.

Young stated that she was willing to do either light duty or her regular job. However, the manager explained that “UPS offered light duty for those with on-the-job injuries, those accommodated under the ADA, and those who had lost [Department of Transportation] certification, but not for pregnancy,” and that “UPS policy did not permit Young to continue working as an air driver with her twenty-pound lifting restriction.”

UPS’s division manager confirmed that Young could not come back to work until she was no longer pregnant. As a result, she was required to go on an extended, unpaid leave of absence, during which she lost her medical coverage. She returned to work two months after giving birth. After exhausting her remedies at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), Young filed suit, alleging that that UPS violated the PDA by failing to provide Young the same accommodations as it provided to nonpregnant employees who were similar in their ability to work.

The Prior Court Rulings

The district court sided with UPS, holding that the company’s decision to deny Young’s lifting accommodation turned on “gender-neutral criteria,” because UPS accommodates “only drivers (1) who suffered on-the-job injuries; (2) who were disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act; or (3) [who] lost their DOT certification to drive.” Because this policy was “gender-neutral,” the court further concluded that it did not constitute direct evidence of discrimination. Moreover, it could not support an inference “that the employer has animus directed specifically at pregnant women,” which the court deemed necessary to support a PDA claim.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. It held that UPS had crafted a “pregnancy-blind policy” by limiting accommodations to three specific categories. It further held that held that the PDA’s requirement that pregnant women “shall be treated the same” as nonpregnant employees “similar in their ability or inability to work,” does not create a distinct and separate cause of action

The Issues Before the Supreme Court

The specific question before the U.S. Supreme Court is “[w]hether, and in what circumstances, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k), requires an employer that provides work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations to provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’”

The EEOC has already taken the position that an employer may not treat pregnant workers differently from employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work based on the cause of their limitations. It will be interesting to see if the justices agree.

If you have questions about the EEOC pregnancy discrimination guidance or want to ensure that your business is in compliance, please contact me, Ramon Rivera, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck Labor and Employment attorney with whom you work.