HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Guest Blogger Professor Maya Manian - Young v. UPS: Will the Supreme Court Deliver a Healthy Ruling for Pregnant Workers?

Manian fbIn Young v. United Parcel Service, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on December 3, 2014, the Court will decide whether the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) protects pregnant workers from suffering economic harms due to pregnancy-related health conditions. The PDA provides that pregnant women “shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

In 2006, Peggy Young became pregnant while working as a delivery truck driver for UPS. Her healthcare provider recommended that she not lift more than twenty pounds, but Young’s job description required hauling much heavier packages. Based on the medical advice she received, Young requested a temporary accommodation of a lightened load similar to accommodations UPS already granted other workers. Young’s supervisor denied her request and sent her on an unpaid leave, during which she lost her healthcare benefits.

Although UPS granted accommodations like the one Young requested to workers injured on the job, disabled workers entitled to accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), or workers who lost their driving credentials (including for drunk driving), UPS argued that the PDA demanded no such accommodation for pregnant women. The company claimed that its policy was “pregnancy-neutral” since it treated all workers who did not fall into the eligible categories alike. Young argued that the PDA requires employers to provide the same benefits to pregnant workers it provides to other workers “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The Fourth Circuit adopted UPS’ much more cramped interpretation of the PDA. Since the case began, UPS has changed its policy and will allow pregnant workers light work accommodations similarly to other workers. The EEOC has also issued new guidelines supporting Young’s interpretation of the PDA and interpreting new amendments to the ADA that enhance pregnant workers’ rights.

Regardless of changes in policy, the Supreme Court’s ruling will have repercussions on how lower courts continue to interpret the PDA, the ADA, and the new EEOC guidelines. The health of millions of pregnant workers remains at stake—two thirds of first time mothers work while pregnant and many of these women must work late into their pregnancies. The case also presents seemingly strange bedfellows working together, since both abortion rights groups and anti-abortion forces have filed amicus briefs in favor of Young.

Despite the confluence of both liberal and conservative voices in favor of protecting the health of pregnant workers, a victory for Young remains highly uncertain given that the Supreme Court has lately shown itself to be much more concerned with protecting the rights of corporations than protecting women’s right to equality. As Justice Ginsburg has described, the five justice conservative male majority appears to have a “blind spot” regarding women’s social and economic equality, including the need for protection of their reproductive health. The Court’s conservative voting bloc has upheld limitations on abortion in disregard of women’s reproductive healthcare needs (Gonzales v. Carhart); allowed corporations to hinder women’s access to contraceptive coverage (Burwell v.Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.);limited access to medical leaves (Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland); and hindered the ability of women to sue for sex discrimination for unequal pay (Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.).

If the Court continues favoring corporate interests over women’s interests the only remaining hope lies in Congress. The words “hope” and “Congress” hardly belong in the same sentence, but as long as the Supreme Court continues to issue opinions that harm women’s health,advocates will have no choice but to seek statutory reforms from a Republican-controlled House and Senate. In the past, Republicans have been much more interested in passing abortion restrictions than enacting the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. Unfortunately, Republican control of Congress and the Supreme Court likely means that women’s reproductive health will suffer regardless of which path of pregnancy resolution they choose. 

-Professor Maya Manian

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