Employers Must Accommodate Pregnant Workers!

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act added new language to the definitions subsection of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The first clause of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act specifies that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”

The Act’s second clause says that employers must treat “women affected by pregnancy . . . the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Young was a part-time driver for United Parcel Service (UPS). When she became pregnant, her doctor advised her that she should not lift more than 20 pounds. UPS, however, required drivers like Young to be able to lift up to 70 pounds. UPS told Young that she could not work while under a lifting restriction.

Young sued UPS claiming it didn’t accommodate her pregnancy related lifting restriction under a disparate treatment theory. She can prove that theory directly by showing that a workplace policy, practice, or decision relies expressly on a protected characteristic, or indirectly, by using the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U. S. 792.

Under the McDonnell framework, the plaintiff has “the initial burden” of “establishing a prima facie case” of discrimination. If she carries her burden, the employer must have an opportunity “to articulate some legitimate, non-discriminatory reason[s] for” the difference in treatment. If the employer articulates such reasons, the plaintiff then has “an opportunity to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the reasons . . . were a pretext for discrimination.”

An individual pregnant worker who seeks to show disparate treatment may make out a prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas framework by showing that she belongs to the protected class, that she sought accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The employer may then seek to justify its refusal to accommodate the plaintiff by relying on “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons for denying accommodation. That reason normally cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those whom the employer accommodates. If the employer offers a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reason, the plaintiff may show that it is in fact pretextual. The plaintiff may reach a jury on this issue by providing sufficient evidence that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers, and that the employer’s “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather—when considered along with the burden imposed—give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination. The plaintiff can create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a significant burden exists by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers. This approach is consistent with the longstanding rule that a plaintiff can use circumstantial proof to rebut an employer’s apparently legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons.

You can read the Supreme Court’s full decision here.

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