Pregnant-Worker Rights at Heart of Supreme Court UPS Case

United Parcel Service Inc. packages travel down a conveyor belt in the sort area at the UPS air hub at Mather Airport in Sacramento, California, U.S., on Monday, July. 25, 2011.

United Parcel Service Inc. packages travel down a conveyor belt in the sort area at the UPS air hub at Mather Airport in Sacramento, California, U.S., on Monday, July. 25, 2011.

Photographer: Ken James/Bloomberg

A former United Parcel Service Inc. driver is pressing what may become the most significant case in decades on the rights of pregnant workers as she asks the U.S. Supreme Court to expand protection for millions of women.

Peggy Young had to take unpaid leave after her doctor recommended she not lift heavy items and UPS didn’t offer alternative work. At issue in the case, set for argument tomorrow, is whether expectant mothers must be offered light-duty assignments on the same basis as workers who have similar limitations because of on-the-job injuries.

A diverse collection of groups -- comprising the Obama administration and anti-abortion advocates -- is urging the court to require that type of equal treatment. That would extend the reach of the Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 in much of the country.

“We want to encourage women to be able to keep their jobs,” said Colin Bonini, a Delaware Republican state senator who is part of a group of lawmakers asking the court to back pregnancy protection. “We want to encourage women to have successful pregnancies. And we want to encourage women to have successful families.”

Business groups say the case threatens to undercut the ability of employers to apply neutral policies, including seniority systems and preferences for workers hurt on the job.

A ruling against UPS would upend policies at thousands of businesses, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says. Employers would have to “prioritize pregnant employees ahead of everyone else when it comes to securing light-duty assignments, even at the expense of more senior employees,” it said in a court filing.

The American Trucking Associations says its companies would be especially hard-hit because of the physical demands on drivers. The high court will rule by late June.

Doctor's Orders

Young worked out of a UPS facility in Landover, Maryland. Her job required her to load packages onto vehicles and deliver them to their destination. Although she says the vast majority of those packages were envelope-size, her job description required her to lift parcels of up to 70 pounds.

In 2006, Young became pregnant after in vitro fertilization, and her doctor and midwife said she shouldn’t lift objects weighing more than 20 pounds during the first half of the pregnancy or more than 10 pounds for the rest.

She says UPS refused to accommodate her needs either by adjusting her job responsibilities or by temporarily assigning her to a position that didn’t require heavy lifting.

Suing UPS

There were “many, many jobs” she could have performed at the Landover facility, including those that required only handling phone calls or addressing packages, she said in an e-mailed response to a reporter’s question. She also said she would have worked in a nearby facility if the company preferred.

“I was flexible,” Young said. “I just needed my job.”

She went on an unpaid leave of absence and returned to work after her baby was born. She later left UPS.

Young sued the company for compensation, claiming it had violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Two lower courts ruled against her.

UPS says it was simply abiding by its seniority system and union contract, which makes no provision for pregnant employees with physical limitations. The union agreement called for reassignments to be available to workers with job-related injuries and those considered permanently disabled under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The accord also made provisions for people who lost their federal driver’s certification, letting them temporarily take jobs that don’t involve operating a vehicle.

Neutral Policies

UPS says the Pregnancy Discrimination Act doesn’t require pregnant workers to be treated the same as people who get injured on the job.

“Young was treated exactly the same as another group of employees similarly situated in their ability to work -- those with a lifting restriction resulting from an off-the-job injury or condition,” the company argued.

The justices will be interpreting part of the statute that says pregnant employees must be handled in the same way as “other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

UPS, which has more than 300,000 U.S. employees, says its policy was similar to the one at the U.S. Postal Service.

Most federal appeals courts to have considered the issue, including the court that ruled in Young’s case, agree with UPS’s position. Until recently the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had suggested through court filings that it did so as well.

New Guidance

That changed in July when the EEOC issued new enforcement guidance that said employers can’t provide light duty only to workers who are injured on the job. The Obama administration told the justices in court papers that the guidance “is entitled to respect and reinforces the plain reading” of the law.

UPS has also made a shift in the months since the high court agreed to hear Young’s appeal. The company says that starting on Jan. 1 it will treat pregnant employees with physical restrictions the same as workers with on-the-job injuries, giving them light-duty assignments if the work is available.

Kara Ross, a UPS spokeswoman, said one reason for the change was the increasing number of states that require accommodations for pregnant workers. By January, nine states will have those requirements, up from one at the time of Young’s pregnancy.

Times Changing

“Laws are changing, times are changing, the regulatory guidance has changed this year, and our employee expectations have changed,” Ross said.

Those shifts come as the role of women in the workplace grows in significance. Forty percent of women with children under 18 are their family’s sole or primary source of income, Pew Research Center found last year.

Meanwhile, Young is continuing to press in her case in an effort to win damages. Her attorney, University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Bagenstos, said the change in policy shows UPS could have accommodated his client all along.

“UPS argued they couldn’t accommodate pregnant workers because it would violate their collective bargaining agreement and because it would be too burdensome,” he said. “It turns out that those aren’t obstacles to accommodating pregnant workers at UPS.”

The case is Young v. UPS, 12-1226.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE