The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case involving a pregnant woman who was told she needed light duty work.
She was startled to discover that her employer refused to offer her the same kind of light duty that it routinely offered co-workers who were returning to work from disability leave. She ended up having to take leave.
Of course, the immediate human reaction is to feel bad for the worker. It seems unreasonable for an employer to cut a pregnant worker a little slack.
But the case raises uncomfortable questions about the practicality of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — laws signed at a time when employers still had deadwood on the payroll.
Those laws apply to relatively large employers, and the theory was that any employer with, say, 50 employees ought to have enough give in its workforce that it could find a way to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities, or to provide unpaid leave for workers face personal illnesses or family catastrophes.
The current challenge is that most employers got rid of the deadwood years ago. They lopped off the living branches that just weren’t that great during the Current Recession. Many of the remaining workers are doing work that should really be done by two or three people. When they go off on an extended leave, the remaining workers cry, either outwardly and inwardly.
The employers are too uncertain and strapped for cash themselves to cut workers any slack.
Somehow, employers, workers, labor groups, and policymakers need to get real and recognize that it’s not 1990 or 1993 anymore, and find ways to adapt leave laws to today’s leaner and meaner workplace.