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SCOTUS and pregnancy rights

How to interpret the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act

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Lawyers Samuel Bagenstos, left, and Sharon Fast Gustafson represented Peggy Young in her Supreme Court case against her former employer, UPS, for making her take time off without pay when she was pregnant. - SHFWIRE PHOTO BY LORAIN WATTERS
  • SHFWire photo by Lorain Watters
  • Lawyers Samuel Bagenstos, left, and Sharon Fast Gustafson represented Peggy Young in her Supreme Court case against her former employer, UPS, for making her take time off without pay when she was pregnant.

By Lorrain Watters

Peggy Young was pregnant with her daughter in 2006. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether Young should have been granted light duty at her job as a UPS driver during her pregnancy.

Young sued UPS after the company refused to put her on light duty when her doctor said she shouldn’t lift more than 20 pounds. Her job required that she be able to lift 70 pounds. She was put on leave without pay.

The question before the justices is whether the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act required UPS to grant Young light duty.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan were adamant in clearly defining the PDA as giving pregnant women the same benefits as workers with other temporary disabilities.

“Of course, pregnancy is not a non-occupational sickness and accident,” Kagan said. “What we know about the PDA is that it was supposed to be about removing stereotypes of pregnant women as marginal workers. It was supposed to be about ensuring that they wouldn’t be unfairly excluded from the workplace.”

Under the UPS policy, because Young was not injured on the job or did not lose her federal driver’s license, she could not be given light duty.

UPS’s lawyer Caitlin Halligan argued this was a straightforward case.

“This is an area where the democratic process is working as it should,” she said.

Kagan noted that for the democratic process to work, the PDA has to be read fairly. She said that UPS’s policy accommodated some workers, but not pregnant women.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Ginsburg pointed to two sections of the law that read together or separately might cause confusion.

The first clause says employers can’t discriminate on the basis of pregnancy because it would be sex discrimination. But the second clause says “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability to work.”

Halligan argued that the company was not in violation of the law because pregnancy was treated the same as other disabilities that weren’t work-related.

UPS has changed its policy, effective Jan. 1, to allow pregnant women to be on light-duty status.

Anti-abortion and abortion rights groups rally together outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday in support of Peggy Young and all women who are pregnant for equal treatment in the workplace. - SHFWIRE PHOTO BY LORAIN WATTERS
  • SHFWire photo by Lorain Watters
  • Anti-abortion and abortion rights groups rally together outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday in support of Peggy Young and all women who are pregnant for equal treatment in the workplace.

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. argued that Young’s interpretation of the law was correct, a change in federal policy. He said Congress made a choice to protect pregnant women.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and state employment fairness agencies have received more than 3,000 pregnancy discrimination cases a year since 1997.

Outside the court, anti-abortion and abortion rights groups rallied in support of Young. It’s rare for them to agree, but anti-abortion groups worry that women who lose their jobs during pregnancy might decide to get abortions.

Speaking to reporters after the case was heard, Young said she was hopeful the justices would rule in her favor. A decision is expected by June.

Reporter Lorain Watters can be reached at lorain.watters@scripps.com or 202-408-1494.

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