The Supreme Court has issued its decision in Young v. UPS. The finer points of the Court's analysis will interest legal scholars; the practical effects of the decision will complicate decisions of HR professionals.
The bottom line is that under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which covers those with fifteen or more employees, an employer may now face a lawsuit if it accommodates the temporary work restrictions of some employees but not of pregnant employees. To avoid liability, the employer must be able to show a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason why it accommodates the temporary restrictions of some, but not others.
TIP: Take stock of your policies that accommodate temporary work restrictions in any way. Be prepared to offer the same level of accommodations to a pregnant employee whose doctor imposes work restrictions.
For example, consider this very common situation. An employee is injured on the job and receives workers' compensation benefits. To reduce workers' compensation liability and encourage the employee's return to work, an employer offers a light duty assignment for a few weeks while the injured employee recovers to full duty. The employer has, thereby, accommodated a temporary work restriction. Having extended that benefit to some employees, may the employer deny it to pregnant employees?
The Court did not answer this question, although it did state that issues of cost and inconvenience would not be enough to justify denying light duty to a pregnant worker if it is offered to others. It remains unclear whether an employer can rely on cost and inconvenience as reasons to limit light duty opportunities to employees whose restrictions result from on-the-job injuries. Until future courts take up that specific issue, the safe course is to grant pregnant employees the same accommodations offered to those with workers' compensation claims.
Further, Young did not involve the ADA because the case was filed before changes to the ADA made it easier to prove that temporary restrictions can be disabilities. With those amendments now in place, a pregnant employee with work restrictions who is denied light duty would likely assert claims for violations of both the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the ADA (for disability discrimination and denial of a reasonable accommodation). As in all ADA cases, any duty to accommodate under that statute would depend on the degree of limitations and on the job duties in question, not specifically on whether non-pregnant employees have been accommodated. So, employers are likely to face a double dose of claims when pregnant employees are not accommodated.
To be clear, though, the Young decision does not mandate accommodations under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act if an employer does not accommodate other temporary work restrictions. The Court's holding is limited to making sure that pregnant employees are not denied, for reasons of bias, benefits that others with similar restrictions do receive.