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U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Impacts Employers' Accommodation for Pregnant Employees

On March 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued an important opinion that may change how employers review requests from employees. In the case of Young v. UPS.  Young filed a pregnancy discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging a violation under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).
 
Young worked as a part-time driver for United Parcel Service (UPS). After she became pregnant, her doctors advised that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy or more than 10 pounds thereafter.  UPS  drivers were required to lift parcels weighing up to 70 pounds and up to 150 pounds with assistance.  UPS would accommodate lifting restrictions if the employee qualified for a temporary alternative work assignment. However, temporary alternative work assignments were generally not available to pregnant employees. Accordingly, UPS told her she could not work while under the lift restrictions.

The Supreme Court ruled that to establish a prima facie case under the PDA,  the employee needed to show "she belongs to the protected class [i.e., that she was affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions], that she sought accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others 'similar in their ability or inability to work.'"

The burden then shifts to the employer to present a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for denying the accommodation. This nondiscriminatory reason must be more than a showing that something is more expensive or less convenient. The employee can overcome the employer's showing if she demonstrates the employer's policies impose a "significant burden on pregnant workers," and the reasons for the difference in treatment are "not sufficiently strong to justify the burden."

It is clear that the failure to extend light-duty accommodations to pregnant employees is not acceptable simply because there are non-pregnant employees who also don't qualify. Further, discrimination against pregnant workers cannot be rationalized by an argument that accommodations "would be more expensive or less convenient." The analysis in this light-duty case may likely impact other  policies such as flextime, telecommuting, and shifts.
 
The Court's decision decreases the employee's burden of succeeding in pregnancy discrimination and accommodation claims. Employer policies (both written and unwritten) should be reviewed in light of this new guidance.

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