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." Employers don't necessarily have a legal duty to provide light duty to pregnant employees. The law requires only that employers treat pregnant employees who are temporarily unable to do their jobs 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 generally. 

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? Some courts have said no, because the employer is not making a distinction based on pregnancy. The employer is not singling out pregnant employees for poor treatment; instead, it is treating all pregnant employees the same as all other employees who are temporarily unable to work for any reason other than a job-related injury. In a recent Maryland case, for example, a part-time UPS driver was denied light duty work while she was pregnant, even though such work was provided for employees with on-the-job injuries. Her job called for her to lift up to 70 pounds; her doctor said she should lift no more than 20 pounds. The federal district court and Court of Appeals found in favor of UPS. Because the company's light duty policy did not single out pregnant employees, it was fair for the company to deny the benefit to all employees with off-duty injuries or impairments. 

Some states have stepped in to protect pregnant employees in this situation. For example, in response to the UPS case, the Maryland legislature passed a law requiring employers to provide light duty work or other accommodations to pregnant employees who cannot perform their regular job functions, in some situations. 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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