Up next for the Supreme Court: Pregnant workers’ rights


After the Hobby Lobby decision involving birth control and religious rights, the Supreme Court is set to weigh in yet again on women’s health with a case involving the rights of a pregnant UPS worker.  (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

With its decision in the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court ignited a contentious conversation about religious freedom and reproductive rights, ensuring that women’s health issues will once again dominate political jockeying in an election year.  Well, next year could provide the same sort of fodder, as the court has agreed to hear a case involving a woman who says that her employers discriminated against her because she was pregnant.

At issue in the case, Peggy Young v. United Parcel Service, is whether the company violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) in its treatment of Young, a delivery driver who said she was required to go on unpaid maternity leave, rather than get a position that was less strenuous as her doctors advised.

Lower courts have ruled in UPS’s favor, with the company arguing that its policies are “pregnancy-neutral,” and governed by a collective bargaining agreement that Young didn’t qualify for.

The court’s decision to take the case comes as President Obama is calling on Congress to act on the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, (PWFA) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed federal lawsuits recently against companies, alleging that women were fired after their pregnancy was revealed in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which doesn’t expressly mandate that employees make accommodations for pregnant women. It also comes as lawmakers in New York are calling on the state legislature to pass a bill that expands on protections for pregnant women workers.

(Here’s a look at how other states stack up).

A lawyer for Young said that the case is particularly important for women in low-wage jobs.

“These cases often arise with nurses and nurses assistants and women who have jobs with a physical component. It’s a barrier to work for women who become pregnant in those sorts of jobs,” said Samuel Bagenstos, a lawyer on the case. “What the PDA says is that employees have to provide workers who are pregnant the same accommodations that they would provide any other worker.”

Susan Rosenberg, UPS’s public relations director said in an e-mailed statement:

“UPS is committed to a fair workplace and has consistent and robust policies to prevent discrimination and adhere to our legal obligations,” said Susan Rosenberg, UPS’s public relations director.  “We look forward to the Court’s review of the merits of this case.

The is the company’s key argument according to an opposition brief:

The collective bargaining agreement neither requires nor authorizes UPS to disrupt the seniority system by giving temporary, alternative positions to employees unable to perform their normal work assignments due to off-the-job injuries or conditions (unless the resulting limitation amounts to a cognizable disability under the ADA). For example, a driver whose health care provider imposed a lifting limitation due to a back injury sustained off the job, and which was not an ADA-cognizable disability….would not be eligible for an accommodation. Under its collectively bargained policy, UPS treats a lifting restriction resulting from pregnancy in exactly the same way.

The U.S. solicitor general, Donald B. Verrilli Jr., filed a brief arguing that the court should pass on the case because the EEOC is currently considering guidance that would clarify issues related to pregnancy, the PDA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

A spokesman for the EEOC said that the agency doesn’t have anything to announce right now.

The proposed Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) seeks similar clarification, but it has little chance of making its way out of the Senate.

Employers would have to create “reasonable workplace accommodations for workers whose ability to perform the functions of a job are limited by pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition,” according to the text of the 12-page bill.

“The key to the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is the phrase ‘reasonable accommodations.’ The bill uses the same tried and trusted standard as the bipartisan Americans with Disabilities Act to provide basic protections for these vulnerable women,” Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), the bill’s sponsor, wrote in an e-mail to She The People. “Some employers across the country are stepping up but it should be common sense to enshrine this basic principle into law.”

Deborah Widiss, an associate law professor at Indiana University, said she was “a little surprised,” that the court took the case, given that the EEOC is likely to issue guidelines, but the court as well as Congress are reacting to “the reality that some pregnant women need accommodations at work and there is no explicit law that requires that.”

“Look at the Hobby Lobby case and some of the issues here as well.  It is about the reality that women work and they get pregnant,” Widiss said.  “These are important issues and it would be good to have clarity.”

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