December 11, 2014 — Decades after the Supreme Court "studiously avoided treating pregnancy discrimination as sex discrimination" in resolving a case involving pregnant teachers, "[p]regnancy still seems to knock the legal system off its stride, evoking in judges and employers alike a kind of tunnel vision that makes pregnancy the exception to any rule," New York Times op-ed contributor Linda Greenhouse writes.
Greenhouse compares a case the Supreme Court heard last week -- in which former UPS employee Peggy Young alleges that the company violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PL 95-555) by refusing to grant accommodations so she could continue working -- with mandatory leave cases brought by pregnant teachers in the 1970s.
According to Greenhouse, the Supreme Court sided with the teachers on grounds of due process, not sex discrimination, and later ruled against women employees suing for sex discrimination, finding that sex discrimination was "not linked as a legal matter" to pregnancy discrimination. Similarly, Greenhouse points out that UPS contends it denied Young's accommodation request not because of pregnancy per se, but because she did not meet the company's specific requirements for accommodations. However, between the earlier cases and Young v. UPS, Congress passed the PDA, "declaring that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy was indeed a form of sex discrimination as a matter of federal law," Greenhouse notes.
Greenhouse writes that while the Supreme Court could back UPS' "rigidly formalistic argument ... there is also compelling logic in an alternative reading of the statutory injunction" in the case of the PDA "to treat pregnant employees 'the same' as others who are 'similar in their ability or inability to work.'" Specifically, Greenhouse writes that comparing a pregnant employee to "'[a]ny employee who needs and receives a temporary accommodation to a physical condition' is hardly a crazy reading of the statute, certainly not in the context of its enactment in response to a court of nine men who were categorically unable to see pregnancy discrimination at all."
Meanwhile, Greenhouse notes that UPS has revised its accommodation policy to treat pregnant employees "on the same basis as 'employees with similar restrictions resulting from on-the-job injuries,'" suggesting that while "Young may not win her case ... she will be a winner nonetheless" (Greenhouse, New York Times, 12/10).