When an employee is injured on the job, it is good business practice for an employer to offer the injured worker a temporary “light duty” job assignment when applicable. It makes sense for some very good reasons: the employee remains engaged, the cost of the Workers’ Compensation claim is controlled and the employer will ultimately see insurance premium relief. But what happens when a pregnant worker, as a consequence of her condition, is not able to perform her normal job function? That is the central question the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) wrestled with on December 3 when the Court heard Young v. United Parcel Service.
Peggy Young was a driver for United Parcel Service (UPS) when in 2006 after she became pregnant was told by her doctor that she not lift more than 20 pounds. She was told by her employer that she would be required to take an unpaid leave of absence. Doing so forced her to lose medical benefits, wages, pension and short-term disability benefits that would have been available following childbirth. Her lawyers claimed that UPS violated provisions of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. UPS claims otherwise, citing that while light duty accommodations would be made for workers injured on the job, it was not their policy to provide the same job modification for an employee who was injured at home.
The U.S. Department of Labor website states that “Pregnant employees who are temporarily unable to perform their jobs due to medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth must be treated the same for all employment-related purposes as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work. For instance, if the agency assigns light duty work to employees who are temporarily unable to perform their duties because of a medical condition, then a pregnant employee who is temporarily unable to perform her duties must be given light duty assignments.”
Pete Williams, reporting for NBC Nightly News summarized the hearing. Lyle Denniston, writing for SCOTUSblog, cites the ambiguities in the 1978 law could be an issue as the Court sorts out what the intent of Congress was when the bill was enacted.
So what does this mean to a business owner today? The safe harbor approach, of course, would be to offer all pregnant women modified duty if their doctor believes it to be necessary. For larger companies, as seen in the UPS example, that might be easier said than done, given that not all jobs have the same physical requirements. In these cases, it seems clear that if pregnant employees are not accommodated, neither should other employees who seek modified job duty for any reason (other than workplace injury).
It is anticipated that SCOTUS will render a decision by June, 2015.
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