Today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Peggy Young v. UPS, a case that will affect just how much protection is afforded by a federal law protecting pregnant workers from job discrimination. This is one of the cases discussed in PFAW Foundation's preview for the current Supreme Court term.
Young, a pregnant UPS driver, was told by her doctor that she shouldn't lift more than 20 pounds while she was pregnant. When the company refused her request for temporary light duty, she was forced to choose between her job and her pregnancy. She chose the latter, and she had to take unpaid leave for the rest of her pregnancy, which also meant a temporary loss of her health insurance.
UPS changed its policy a few weeks ago, and it now accommodates women in Young's position. But the company claims its original policy was legal and not in violation of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The PDA says that job discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is a form of illegal sex discrimination (a point that should have been obvious, except the Supreme Court had interpreted Title VII otherwise a couple of years earlier).
But it does more than that: a second clause also specifically mandates the pregnant women "shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes ... as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work."
Since UPS gave light duty to certain other workers who are similar in their ability or inability to work – ones with an on-the-job injury, the loss of their driving certification, or a permanent disability – Young sued, saying that her employer's treatment of her violated the PDA. But UPS says its policy was legal because it was "pregnancy-blind:" They claim they were treating Young the same way they'd have treated a non-pregnant employee whose injury doesn't fit any of the above conditions.
The Washington Post reports that at this morning's oral arguments, the Court "tread somewhat gingerly through an hour of technical arguments."
Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dominated the questioning of the company's lawyer, Caitlin J. Halligan.
Kagan said that when Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, it meant to abolish the "stereotype" of women as marginal workers. She said the act forbids policies that put all pregnant women "on one side of the line," and instead forces employers to prove their actions are not discriminatory.
Justice Ginsburg also had a retort to one of Justice Scalia's criticisms of Young's arguments:
Justice Antonin Scalia [said that Young] seemed to be seeking special recognition under the 1978 act, akin to "most-favored nation" status.
Ginsburg later countered that the UPS policy seemed to convey "least-favored nation" status.
The question for the Court is what Congress intended when it passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Did it truly intend for it to be so easy for companies like UPS to force women to choose between their job and their pregnancy? Or did Congress intend to protect pregnant workers who need their employers to make some reasonable temporary accommodation so they don't have to quit their jobs, lose their health insurance, and deprive their families of much-needed income?