In a highly anticipated decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in Young v. United Parcel Service that may create more questions than answers for employers considering how to accommodate pregnant employees in the workplace.
The plaintiff in the case, a part-time driver for UPS, was instructed by her obstetrician not to lift more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy. UPS requires its drivers to be able to lift up to 70 pounds, so the company told Young she could not work while this restriction was in place.
Young and the federal government argued that since UPS provided accommodations to non-pregnant workers with similar restrictions, such as those who had been injured on the job or had medical conditions covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the company was legally obligated to provide the same accommodations to pregnant workers.
The Supreme Court disagreed, but did find that a pregnant employee could succeed on a claim of discrimination if she could establish that an employer’s reason for refusing to provide an accommodation to a pregnant worker was not strong enough to justify the increased burden on the pregnant employee. The Supreme Court concluded that Young may be able to make that showing and returned the case to the appellate court.
The framework the Supreme Court established should be the focus for employers going forward. Employers should also take note of the court’s position that an employer’s “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” for not providing an accommodation must be more than just a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to accommodate pregnant employees than non-pregnant employees.
Future impact on employers
Even before the Supreme Court’s decision in the Young case, the best practice for employers was to handle accommodation requests for pregnant employees the way similar requests were handled for non-pregnant employees. However, many companies have provisions in place today that provide for light or modified duty only to workers who suffer injuries on the job.
In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, these policies should be reviewed carefully with legal and employment policy experts, as a pregnant employee under similar physical restrictions will now have an easier road to establishing discrimination on the basis of pregnancy if denied an accommodation offered to an employee who suffered a workplace injury.
It is also reasonable to predict that the decision in Young could be applied to employees with restrictions other than those related to a pregnancy. In the case of the employer that only provides light or modified duty to employees injured on the job, the reasoning in Young could be extended to include, for example, an employee unable to perform a job function because of a medical condition unrelated to a workplace injury.
In short, employers should be prepared to face increased scrutiny of their policies when they provide an accommodation to certain employees but decline to provide a similar accommodation to other workers simply based on the type of medical condition in question.
No matter how you look at it, it is a slippery slope for employers and they should seek the advice of HR experts and revisit their workplace policies.
Ryan Hollander, assistant general counsel of Engage PEO, contributed to this article.
Jay Starkman is the founder and CEO of Engage PEO. Engage provides HR services and counsel to help clients minimize costs and maximize efficiency through a full range of health and worker’s compensation insurance products, payroll technology and tax administration, risk management services and best-of-breed technology as part of an extensive suite of HR services. Starkman has a law degree from the University of Miami.