National Consumers League

The time to protect pregnant workers is now

Sometimes I really hate what lawyers do to parse the plain language of the law. Last week was a case in point. I attended Supreme Court argument in the case of Peggy Young vs. UPS. Young challenged her treatment as a UPS worker expecting a baby and needing to go on light duty but the company refused to reassign her. The statute in question is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA). 

As it happens, I worked on getting that bill passed as a Congressional staffer. In 1978, Congress rushed into action to overturn a blatantly absurd finding by the Supreme Court in a case called Gilbert vs. GE where the Court actually said that not making physical accommodation for pregnant women in the workplace while accommodating all sorts of other disabilities wasn’t sex discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act but simply discrimination against pregnant people.

Ahem. Pregnant people are ALWAYS women so in fact the finding in Gilbert is in fact discrimination against women. So why were we back at the Supreme Court again last week 36 years later re-litigating this case?  The PDA is very simple. It says:

To amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that section 701 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is amended by adding at the end thereof the following new subsection:

"(k) The terms 'because of sex' or 'on the basis of sex' include, but are not limited to, because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; and women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work, and nothing in section 703(h) of this title shall be interpreted to permit otherwise.

In other words, pregnant women should be treated the same for all employment related persons as those with similar in their ability or non ability to work.

Peggy Young simply wanted light duty at UPS late into her pregnancy, as ordered by her doctor. UPS wouldn’t accommodate her. But men with other similar disabilities, including those with DUIs who couldn’t drive a truck, were accommodated. This doesn’t seem like rocket science. But the Supreme Court seemed to think interpreting the PDA was very complicated. What did each word mean and why was it there? As Lyle Denniston of SCOTUS Blog commented on the case: “ The Justices probed deeply into what that section’s words — and punctuation — convey, even to the point of trying to sort out whether a semi-colon made a difference.  There did not appear to be a consensus on the meaning.”  I mean really! There was a great deal of consensus in Congress when the PDA was enacted.

Peggy Young’s plight is not isolated. Appearing before Congress earlier this year, Armanda Legros testified that she was sent home by her manager at an armored truck company, indefinitely and without pay, when she was six and a half months pregnant and had to avoid heavy lifting. She also testified that a co-worker who injured his back on the job was granted the accommodation that she was denied. UPS claims that the comparisons are between those who are injured on the job and those injured outside of the workplace, in which case UPS claims it has no duty to accommodate them and pregnant women fall into that category. 

I can tell you that when Congress enacted the PDA, it was meant to cover exactly Peggy Young’s case – if men at UPS had disabilities that are accommodated, so should Young. I’m told by Supreme Court scholars pregnant women might lose this case. How sad. In fact, UPS has changed their employee practices to ensure that pregnant workers have a right to light duty when needed. But we have to go thru this slow tortuous process to protect pregnant women’s rights nevertheless.

NCL filed an amicus brief in support of Young, joining the ACLU and many other groups. Among the arguments in the brief is that when women are forced to leave the workplace because of pregnancy-related conditions, while other workers with similar limitations are provided light duty, women suffer the very discrimination that Congress sought to eradicate. They lose income, economic security, and benefits, including health insurance, often with devastating results.

I found that listening to the case – I was in the overflow room at the Court reserved for members of the Supreme Court bar –infuriating. Why are we still debating these basic rights for working women. I only hope that the Supreme Court will look at Congressional intent in passing this bill and finally, 36 years later, give Peggy Young and all pregnant women who work the kind of accommodation Congress intended them to have when it passed the PDA. That’s good for women and good for families.