In 2006, a part-time UPS delivery driver named Peggy Young became pregnant and was advised by her doctor not to lift more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy and not to lift more than 10 pounds for the remainder of her pregnancy. UPS required its drivers to be able to lift packages of up to 70 pounds. Young presented a doctor’s note to her employer and requested that she be placed on “light duty” for the duration of her pregnancy. UPS’s light duty policy, however, restricted those positions to employees whose limitations were the result of an on-the-job injury, who had lost their Department of Transportation certification, or who suffered from a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because Young did not fall into any of these categories, UPS denied her request and placed her on unpaid, short-term disability leave instead.
Young then filed suit, claiming that UPS’s refusal to accommodate her pregnancy-related limitations was a form of gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. As amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Title VII states that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected by similar in their ability or inability to work . . . .” Citing this language, Young argued that UPS had treated her differently than similarly limited drivers who are not pregnant. The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland disagreed, and entered summary judgment for UPS, reasoning that the drivers to whom Young sought to compare herself were not sufficiently similar to be suggestive of gender bias by UPS and that there was insufficient evidence that UPS’s rationale for its light duty policy was a pretext for discrimination. The trial court decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the decision and then reversed.
In its opinion written, the Court held that a pregnant worker may succeed on a gender discrimination claim under Title VII if she can prove that her employer refused her requested accommodation, that it provided the requested accommodation to non-pregnant employees with similar work limitations, and that any legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for refusing the accommodation to pregnant workers are outweighed by the burden the difference in treatment imposes on them. The Court noted that employees could prove their burden by showing statistical data regarding the breakdown between pregnant and non-pregnant workers who are accommodated, and if the disparity is sufficiently large, this evidence would support a conclusion that the employer’s reasons were a pretext for intentional discrimination.
As the Court itself noted, the significance of the ruling at the federal level may be limited given that the Americans with Disabilities Act now covers physical impairments that limit an individual’s ability to lift, stand or bend, and this has been interpreted by the EEOC to include impairments that, like pregnancy, are temporary and originate off-the-job. But if nothing else, the Young v. UPS decision gives Massachusetts employers a good excuse to review their policies and procedures vis-à-vis pregnant workers to make sure that they are consistent with both state and federal law.
Most importantly, employers should understand that Massachusetts law already requires employers to consider light duty and other possible accommodations for pregnancy-related handicaps if the accommodations would allow a pregnant employee to continue to perform the essential functions of her position. Indeed, Massachusetts defines “handicap” broadly, and at least one federal court in Massachusetts has ruled that a pregnant woman’s temporary inability to do heavy lifting is a “handicap” within the meaning of Massachusetts’s employment discrimination law, Chapter 151B, Section 4. As a result, Massachusetts employers should consider such accommodations the way they would for any other disabled employee, and regardless of whether they have a policy that otherwise restricts the accommodation to classes of employees that do not include the pregnant worker, e.g. those who were injured on the job.
Of course, Massachusetts employers are never required to eliminate an essential function of an employee’s job as an accommodation for a disability. But the inquiry does not end there. On the contrary, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has taken the position that, “whether or not an employee’s short-term condition rises to the level of a disability, an employer must treat such employee in the same manner as it treats employees who are temporarily incapacitated or disabled for other medical reasons.” In the MCAD’s view, therefore, “when an employee is unable to perform some or all of the functions of her job, such as heavy lifting, because of pregnancy or a related condition, an employer must offer her the opportunity to perform modified tasks, alternative assignments or a transfer to another available position if the employer offers such opportunities to employees who are temporarily disabled for other reasons.” This language is much like the Title VII language that was at issue in Young, and should be interpreted in the same way. Accordingly, while Massachusetts employers need not offer any benefit to a pregnant employee that is not offered to any other employee with similar limitations (if she does not otherwise qualify as disabled), employers should review and think critically about restrictive “light duty” and other such policies that could be viewed as placing a disproportionate burden on pregnant workers. After Young, such policies may be much more difficult to justify to an administrative agency, a court or a jury.