(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.
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.
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.