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Pregnant Workers On the Job: Supreme Court Weighs In

(posted: May 3rd, 2015)

Pregnant Workers: The Supreme Court Weighs In

The U.S. Supreme Court recently gave new life to a pregnancy discrimination claim brought by a former UPS driver, allowing the plaintiff to proceed with her lawsuit under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act in a 6-3 decision.

Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. raised the question of whether an employer must provide the same work accommodations to a pregnant employee as the employer provides to similarly situated, non-pregnant employees.

In California the law already provides strong protections to pregnant workers, but this case is a good reason to review those obligations.

What Is the Issue?

Plaintiff Peggy Young was employed as a part-time "air driver" for UPS, a position that required her to lift packages. In 2006, she became pregnant after several miscarriages. Her doctor restricted her to lifting up to 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy and only up to 10 pounds thereafter.

Young was informed that she did not qualify for "light duty" accommodations, such as clerical work, and was not allowed to return to work. It was UPS policy to give light duty assignments to workers who had on-the-job injuries but not to employees with medical conditions unrelated to work injuries.

Young stayed home without pay during most of the time she was pregnant and eventually lost her employee medical coverage. Young sued UPS, claiming that UPS acted unlawfully in refusing to accommodate her pregnancy-related lift restriction, since the company accommodated other drivers who were "similar in their ... inability to work."

How Does This Affect California Employers?

This case has limited impact on California employers since the state already requires employers to reasonably accommodate pregnant workers under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

In 2013, California amended its pregnancy disability regulations to specifically address and expand upon an employer's obligations to reasonably accommodate pregnant employees.

So, in California, it's illegal for an employer to deny a pregnant employee's request for reasonable accommodation if the employee's request is based on the advice of her health care provider that the accommodation is medically advisable and the requested accommodation is reasonable.

Employers must engage in a good faith interactive process to identify and implement the pregnant employee's request for a reasonable accommodation.

The practices at issue in the Young case wouldn't fly in California. Under California regulations, if you maintain a policy, practice or collective bargaining agreement that requires or authorizes transfers to "light duty" positions for temporarily disabled employees for the duration of a disability (whether work-related or not), you must provide the same for an employee affected by pregnancy who requests a transfer (Title 2 California Code of Regulations section 11041).

An employer may require a medical certification substantiating the employee's need for the transfer.

Employer Best Practices

Before a situation arises:

  • Decide, in advance, whether you are going to require medical certification for all pregnancy accommodation requests.
  • Apply your policies consistently.

If a pregnant employee comes to you with a request for accommodation during her pregnancy, keep the following steps in mind:

  • Engage in the interactive process with the employee to assess what accommodations will work.
  • If you believe that the requested accommodation is unreasonable and you can't come to a solution, seek legal advice prior to making any adverse employment decision or denying accommodation given the significant liability risk.

Compliance with HR rules and regulations is complicated, so please contact us with questions or concerns.

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