By Maya Rhodan
March 25, 2015

Companies that provide special treatment for a large percentage of their injured workers should do the same for pregnant women, the Supreme Court decided on Wednesday.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of former UPS employee Peggy Young, who challenged a company policy that did not allow her to take on lighter duties during her pregnancy, even though the company provided alternative work to some employees with injuries or other circumstances that prevented them from doing their regular jobs.

Wednesday’s ruling blocked an earlier decision saying UPS was justified in not accommodating Young and now sends the case back to a lower court, where her original lawsuit can be revived. Young is seeking back pay and benefits for the time she went without work during her pregnancy. (She’s since found work elsewhere.)

In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer, said there is “genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s.”

Breyer was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elana Kagan and Chief Justice John Roberts in his opinion. Justice Samuel Alito also joined, but wrote his own opinion.

When Young became pregnant in 2006, doctors advised her to take on a lighter workload during her pregnancy. UPS refused, saying its policy was to treat pregnant women as if they were injured outside the workplace, which did not entitle them to special accommodations. As a result, Young had to take unpaid leave.

Young challenged this decision, saying it was unfair of UPS to not make accommodations for pregnant workers (a policy that has since changed) while offering alternative duties to those who were injured on the job.

Breyer wrote that the lower court must consider why UPS made accommodations for other workers but did not do the same for pregnant women. “Why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?” Breyer asked.

The Court didn’t go so far as to say that pregnant workers should be treated more favorably than others, just that pregnant workers should be given the same accommodations offered to others. Still, Young’s lawyers called the decision a “big win for women in the workplace.”

“The Court recognized that employers can’t put pregnancy in a class by itself. The Court recognized that a ruling for UPS would thwart Congress’s intent,” said Sam Bagenstos, who argued Young’s case before the Supreme Court last December.

“It made clear that employers may not refuse to accommodate pregnant workers based on considerations of cost or convenience when they accommodate other workers,” he said in a statement.

On a press call Wednesday, Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center said the Court’s ruling “reaffirmed that the pregnancy discrimination act means what it says.”

“It is illegal sex discrimination,” she said.

UPS praised the Supreme Court’s ruling as well.

“UPS is pleased that the Supreme Court rejected the argument that UPS’s pregnancy-neutral policy was inherently discriminatory,” the company said in a statement, according to reports. “Instead, the Supreme Court adopted a new standard for evaluating pregnancy discrimination claims without ruling for either party and sent the case back to the lower courts for further consideration.”

Young’s case comes as many states have and are considering expanded protections for pregnant workers. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also issued updated guidance on how employers can treat pregnant employees under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act last July.

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