Am I entitled to light duty when I am pregnant?

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Question:

I work in a warehouse for a large online retailer. My job requires processing, filling, and shipping customer orders. Although most of the items we package and ship are small, we occasionally have to lift boxes that weigh up to 40 or 50 pounds. 

I'm pregnant, and my doctor has put me on a lifting restriction; I'm not supposed to lift more than 20 pounds. I've asked my boss for a temporary light-duty assignment, but he said those jobs are available only to employees who have on-the-job injuries. Don't they have to accommodate my pregnancy? 

Answer:

The answer is (the always unsatisfying) "it depends." Under federal law, employers don't necessarily have a legal duty to provide light duty to pregnant employees. The law requires only that employers treat employees who are temporarily unable to do their jobs due to pregnancy just as well as employees who are temporarily unable to do their jobs for other reasons. So, an employer's responsibility to provide light duty work to pregnant employees depends on how the employer handles light duty requests in general. 

Like yours, some employers offer light duty work only to employees with on-the-job injuries. Employers have a strong incentive to provide light duty to these employees, who would otherwise be receiving workers' compensation benefits. Providing a light duty position gets the employee back to work and limits or cuts off the wage replacement benefits available through workers' comp. Because of this incentive, some employers reserve their light duty work for employees who are coming back from workers' comp leave. 

Is this pregnancy discrimination? Until recently, courts were split on this issue. However, the United States Supreme Court recently weighed in to clear things up. In a case called Young v. UPS, with facts very similar to yours, UPS provided light-duty work to only some employees - including those with on-the-job injuries. UPS did not, however, accommodate other employees, including pregnant employees and employees with off-the-job injuries.

The Supreme Court held that employers don't necessarily need to accommodate pregnant employees any time they accommodate a subset of non-pregnant employees. But, they better have a good reason for treating pregnant employees differently than non-pregnant employees. And the fact that it's more inconvenient or expensive to accommodate pregnant employees is not good enough.

If your employer can show a sufficiently strong reason for treating you differently than your coworkers who were injured on the job, you won't be entitled to accommodation under federal law. However, this is still a developing area of the law, and some employers may be rethinking their accommodation policies after the Supreme Court case was issued in Spring of 2015.

You may also have rights under state law. Some states have stepped in to provide pregnant employees with the right to accommodation. In these states, employers must provide light-duty work to employees who have medical restrictions due to pregnancy. To find out if your state has this type of law, ask your state's fair employment practices agency. (Select your state from the list on our Discrimination and Harassment page for contact information.)

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