Employers do not have to provide special accommodations to pregnant workers under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the 4th Circuit ruled on Jan. 9 in Young v. United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS). But businesses should still be cautious before denying those accommodations, especially in light of subsequent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In fall 2006, pregnant UPS driver Peggy Young gave her supervisor two separate doctors’ notes explaining that she should not lift more than 20 pounds for the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy. Although Young’s job rarely required her to move large packages, her supervisor told her that she could not return to work as long as the lifting restriction was in effect. 

UPS did offer light-duty assignments, but only to employees who had been injured on the job, who had lost their Department of Transportation certification or who fell under the scope of the ADA. Because Young did not fall into any of these categories, her supervisors refused to give her alternative work assignments. When she exhausted her time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act, Young went on extended leave and eventually lost her medical coverage.

Young later sued UPS for sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, arguing that the PDA requires employers to grant pregnant workers the same accommodations as other employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.” She also sued the company for disability discrimination under the ADA, claiming that it impermissibly regarded her as disabled.

In 2011, however, a district court found that Young failed to prove discrimination. On appeal, a three-judge panel for the 4th Circuit unanimously affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Claims Rejected

On the ADA claim, the appeals court found that UPS had no obligation to engage in an “informal, interactive process” to ascertain the existence of Young’s disability—as advised under the ADA—because it had acted based on doctors’ notes that Young supplied. 

Writing for the court, Judge Allyson Kay Duncan also found that “given the relatively manageable weight restriction … and [its] short duration … there is no evidence that Young’s pregnancy or her attendant lifting limitation constituted a disability within the meaning of the ADA.”

Young’s PDA claim also failed to sway the court, which found that UPS’ employment policy was pregnancy-blind because it did not extend accommodations to any employee who suffered from an off-the-job injury or disability. Young’s interpretation of the PDA, the 4th Circuit ruled, would “[compel] employers to grant pregnant employees a ‘most favored nation’ status with others based on their ability to work, regardless of whether such status was available to the universe—male and female—of nonpregnant employees.”

Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel of the National Women’s Law Center, which joined an amicus brief in support of Young, disagrees with the court’s stance. “We contend that when you look at the PDA’s language, it makes the relevant question for a court very clear: That you look at whether the pregnant worker is receiving the same treatment as those who are similar in ability to work, and you don’t look at extraneous factors like whether they were injured on the job or off the job,” she says.

Amended ADA

Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the 4th Circuit’s interpretation, the court’s ruling doesn’t give employers free rein to refuse accommodation to pregnant workers, especially given that the events of Young predate the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), which expanded the category of protected disabled individuals. 

“Under the narrow facts of this case … the employer had no obligation to make this accommodation,” says Jon Hyman, a partner at Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. “Going forward, however, companies really act at their peril if they do not at least consider an unpaid leave of absence as an accommodation for a pregnant worker.”

Companies can attract litigation and government scrutiny by instituting rigid, one-size-fits-all employment policies that deny accommodations to disabled workers (see “Increased Enforcement”). Under the ADAAA, that includes employees with temporary disabilities, such as pregnancy-related medical conditions or temporary lifting restrictions.

Both Martin and Hyman advise companies to engage in a more interactive, individualized process with employees. “You have to sit down and talk to the employee … figure out what accommodations work and what don’t, and then reach a conclusion as to what the right accommodation is to offer the employee in that particular job, with that particular medical condition,” Hyman says. “Unless you do all that, you haven’t satisfied your obligation under the ADA to make a reasonable accommodation.”

This interactive process can certainly help companies avoid litigation, but Martin notes that there are often other compelling reasons to accommodate pregnant employees. “Not only is there a legal obligation to this in many circumstances, but this is a good idea for employers,” she says. “These accommodations in general are low-cost or no-cost, they’re short-term and they have real benefits for the employer.”