When Peggy Young was pregnant her first daughter (now 7 years old), the United Parcel Service refused to allow her to take a temporary assignment to avoid lifting heavy packages, as her doctor had ordered.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Young recalls that UPS basically told her to “go home and come back when she was no longer pregnant.” Young then sued the Atlanta-based package-delivery company for pregnancy discrimination. After losing two rounds in lower courts, the Supreme Court elected to hear her case this Wednesday.
The 42-year-old employee, who now resides in Lorton, Virginia, maintains that her perseverance isn’t just for herself. “I am fighting for my two daughters and I’m fighting for women who want to start a family and provide for the family at the same time,” she said.
However, Kara Gerhardt Ross, a spokesperson for UPS claims that the law is on their side. “UPS did not intentionally discriminate,” Ross said.
The outcome of this employment discrimination lawsuit could have wide-ranging effects. Today, 75% of women who join the workforce will become pregnant at some time while employed, and the majority will work through much of their pregnancies, according to employment discrimination attorney Katherine Kimpel. Many women experience complications that require them to seek a change of duties or other modifications in their workplace, Kimpel said.
Young’s case is linked to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, a law passed by Congress back in 1978 explicitly meant to protect women against discrimination based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. At the time, Congress was responding to a ruling by the Supreme Court, then made up exclusively of men, which stated that workplace regulations did not over pregnant workers for disability benefits and insurance coverage. Excluding them from these benefits, according to Congress, did not qualify as sex discrimination under the civil rights law.
In Young’s case specifically, whether UPS violated the law by failing to provide pregnant workers with temporary light-work (even though these are granted to employees with on-the-job injuries, disabilities, or who lose their federal driver certification). “If you were painting your house and fell off a ladder, or if you had a ski accident, that wouldn’t qualify for restricted light duty. That’s where pregnancy fell at that time. It was not covered in any state law except California’s,” Ross said.
At the moment the Obama administration and the majority of congressional Democrats have lined up in support of Young. Moreover, an unconventional cohort of liberal, conservative, women’s and labor rights groups have also rallied behind Young.
When Young worked as a part-time driver for UPS her primary job was to deliver overnight letters before 8:30 a.m. Employees in these jobs are required to have the ability to lift packages up to 70 pounds. Young explained that she very rarely handled anything more than 20 pounds, and almost exclusively delivered letters.
Young was hoping to remain at work after she became pregnant, but her physician and a midwife gave a medical order not to lift items heavier than 20 pounds. However, UPS told Young she could not keep her job and wouldn’t qualify for a temporary assignment like other injured workers.
Because she couldn’t work, Young lost her medical and pension benefits; fortunately she was still covered by husband’s health insurance, but many other workers – especially single moms – are not so lucky.
Young returned to UPS after she had the child, but then left permanently in 2009, one year after bringing the lawsuit. She argued that since UPS made accommodations for nonpregnant employees with work restrictions, she should receive the same.
Lower courts, however, dismissed the suit, ruling that Young had not proven employment discrimination due to pregnancy. Then last summer, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case. In the months since, two important developments have come to pass.
First, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission revised guidelines for employers to clarify that they must accommodate people in Young’s situation.
Second, UPS changed its own policy to allow pregnant employees to switch to light-duty work. “UPS believed it was appropriate to update its workplace policies so that we can attract and retain the best workforce we can,” Ross said.
The case is Young v. UPS, 12-1226