Supreme Court Clarifies Employer’s Duty to Accommodate Pregnant Employees

The U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on an employer’s duty to provide reasonable accommodation to pregnant employees.

On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision clarifying an employer's duty to provide reasonable accommodation to pregnant employees. In Young v. UPS, the plaintiff was working as a driver for UPS when she became pregnant with her first child. When Young was instructed by her doctor not to lift more than 20 pounds, she informed UPS and asked that her work duties be modified accordingly. UPS refused and put her on unpaid leave.

Young sued, arguing that the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) requires employers to treat pregnant employees the same as other employees who are "similar in their ability or inability to work." Because UPS offered light duty work to employees injured on the job, she argued that she deserved similar treatment.

UPS argued that its policy was pregnancy-neutral, which is all that the PDA requires. In other words, UPS was not singling pregnant employees out for worse treatment than other employees. UPS argued that it offered light duty work only to a subset of employees – those with workplace injuries – and that non-pregnant employees who were injured off the job were also not entitled to light duty work.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, but didn't exactly agree with all of her arguments. The Court held that employers are not required to provide reasonable accommodation to pregnant employees any time they provide accommodation to a group of non-pregnant employees. In other words, the employer can treat pregnant employees differently from a subset of non-pregnant employees. However, the employer must have a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the different treatment. If the employer doesn't have sufficiently strong reasons to justify the different treatment, that may be evidence of pretext for discrimination.

Ultimately, though, that's a question for a judge or jury to decide. The case was remanded back to the lower court to decide whether Young showed sufficient evidence to meet this standard. However, the court's opinion suggests that UPS may have a high hurdle to jump. The Court asked, ". . . why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?"

The takeaway is that employers who accommodate any non-pregnant employees should consider whether they have sufficient legitimate reasons for not accommodating pregnant employees as well. According to the Supreme Court, the fact that it may be more costly or inconvenient to accommodate pregnant women is not a sufficient reason.