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Supreme Court To Hear Pregnancy Discrimination Case on Wednesday

Supreme Court To Hear Pregnancy Discrimination Case on Wednesday

December 1, 2014 — The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear oral arguments in Young v. UPS, a pregnancy discrimination case involving a former UPS driver who was placed on unpaid leave after she told the company she could not lift heavy packages while pregnant, the New York Times reports (Liptak, New York Times, 11/30).

Background on Supreme Court Case

More than seven years ago, while pregnant with her daughter, Peggy Young's doctor and midwife wrote notes for her employer stating that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during the pregnancy. However, UPS denied Young a light-duty assignment that would have allowed her to continue working during her pregnancy (Sherman, AP/U-T San Diego, 12/1).

Young then took an unpaid leave of absence and returned to her job after giving birth (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/30). She lost her employer-sponsored health insurance and pension benefits during the leave of absence (AP/U-T San Diego, 12/1). She sued UPS under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PL 95-555), which states that employers are required to treat "women affected by pregnancy" in the same way they treat "other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work" (New York Times, 11/30).

A federal judge and a Virginia-based appeals court both ruled against Young, finding that UPS' policy treated pregnant and non-pregnant employees alike. Young appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which in July agreed to review the lawsuit.

UPS' Arguments

UPS in a Supreme Court brief announced that, effective Jan. 1, it will change its workplace policy to allow pregnant employees to work temporary light-duty assignments. The company said it changed its policy in response to updated guidelines on pregnancy accommodations from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as to ensure "operational consistency" amid several states passing laws requiring reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers. However, UPS in the brief said the new policy does not mean its decision to deny Young a light-duty accommodation was illegal (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/30).

UPS has argued that it treated Young the same as "other employees with similar lifting restrictions resulting from an off-the-job injury or condition" (New York Times, 11/30). Specifically, UPS said Young's situation did not meet criteria of its policy, which was to offer accommodations to workers who were injured on the job, had a disability that was recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (PL 101-336) or lost their driver's certification (Wolf, USA Today, 11/30).

Several business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have filed amicus briefs in support of UPS (New York Times, 11/30).

Young's Case

Young's attorneys wrote in court filings that her job was mostly to deliver letters and rarely required her to lift packages that were heavier than an envelope (Schulte, Washington Post, 11/30). Young argued that, if necessary, a co-worker could have lifted a heavy object if needed while she was working (New York Times, 11/30).

Further, Young noted that UPS had given accommodations under its policy to drivers who lost their certification because of being convicted for driving drunk, had gotten in accidents or had their driving privileges revoked for disciplinary reasons (Washington Post, 11/30).

Twice as many amicus briefs have been filed in support of Young as in support of UPS, according to USA Today (USA Today, 11/30). Such briefs in support of Young have been filed by the Obama administration, 120 congressional Democrats and a diverse set of organizations, including those supporting labor rights, women's rights groups and groups opposed to abortion rights (AP/U-T San Diego, 12/1).

Sam Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor and former official in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division who will argue Young's case before the high court, said, "Women's groups are concerned about guaranteeing equal access to the workplace for women. And anti-abortion groups are concerned about removing the pressures to terminate a pregnancy that a worker might not want to make."

Ruling Could Have Widespread Impact

According to the Washington Post, the high court's decision in the case could affect millions of women (Washington Post, 11/30). The Census Bureau estimates that 62% of women who have given birth in the previous year are in the labor force (New York Times, 11/30).

According to an amicus brief filed by employment discrimination expert Katherine Kimpel, about 75% of women currently entering the workforce will become pregnant one or more times while they are employed, with many women continuing to work during their pregnancies (AP/U-T San Diego, 12/1).

NYT Editorial: Supreme Court Should Side With Young

Young's case is "an opportunity for the court to strike a blow against discriminatory treatment and the resulting economic harm that are too often imposed on women who get pregnant -- as the vast majority of women entering the work force eventually do," a New York Times editorial states.

The Times adds, "Under a plain reading of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and also as a matter of fairness, pregnant workers should be treated no worse than employees who are injured on the job, and the Supreme Court should use the Young case to say so" (New York Times, 11/30).

Collins: 'History is Most Definitely Marching on Young's Side'

While the Supreme Court has "had a dismal recent history when it comes to workers' rights ... history is most definitely marching on Young's side," New York Times columnist Gail Collins writes.

Collins notes that companies are increasingly providing pregnancy-related accommodations, with more states requiring them to do so.

Collins also adds that the case "is also one of the very, very, extremely rare occasions when both sides of the abortion rights divide come together." She writes, "Everybody, from the American Civil Liberties Union to Americans United for Life, understands that most American mothers need to work to help support their families, and nobody wants them to have to choose between having a child and keeping their job" (Collins, New York Times, 11/28).