The U.S. Supreme Court sided with a woman who was faced with the choice to either work her labor-intensive job during pregnancy at the United Parcel Service or go on unpaid leave without benefits. In an opinion issued Wednesday morning, the justices ruled 6–3 that Young should at least be given a full opportunity to make her case in court that she was not given the same accommodation as other employees considered injured or disabled.
Young was tasked with lifting boxes as heavy as 70 pounds in her job as a UPS worker. When she got pregnant, her midwife recommended that she not lift more than 20 pounds, and wrote a note asking her employer to put her on light duty. Had Young been written a similar note because Young broke her arm carrying boxes, or suffered from a disability, UPS would have put her on what is known as “light duty.” But UPS wouldn’t do it for Young on account of her pregnancy. The alternative was to take unpaid leave without medical benefits.
A federal appeals court sided with UPS, finding that granting “light duty” to Young would give pregnant employees an advantage over other other employees and that Young didn’t suffer pregnancy discrimination. But in so ruling, the court never gave Young a chance to go to trial and prove all the elements of her claim — in what the U.S. Supreme Court found was a violation of federal civil rights law.
“Ultimately the court must determine whether the nature of the employer’s policy and the way in which it burdens pregnant women shows that the employer has engaged in intentional discrimination,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for a five-justice majority opinion that included the four liberal justices plus Chief Justice John G. Roberts. Justice Samuel Alito wrote his own concurring opinion.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits employers from treating pregnant women differently from other employees who are “similar in their ability, or inability, to work.” The act was passed in response to rampant mistreatment and misperceptions of women workers. But these misperceptions persist, even as women now make up about half of the workforce and a large proportion of them will either leave the workforce at some point to have a child, or may be viewed as a woman with the potential to one day leave the workforce for that reason.
In fact, complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging pregnancy discrimination have only increased, prompting the Commission to remind employers recently that they still can’t discriminate against pregnant women.
As a group of women’s advocacy groups and law professors pointed out in their brief, a ruling against Young would have harmed the women most in need of pregnancy discrimination protection — those in “low-wage jobs and traditionally male-dominated occupations who are most likely to experience temporary conflicts between the physical effects of pregnancy and job requirements,” and who already experience disproportionate discrimination, according to recent statistics.
In fact, UPS didn’t have many advocates in this case other than the federal appeals court judges. Briefs filed on behalf of state and local lawmakers, national medical associations, the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Solicitor General, and even 23 pro-life organizations defended Young’s right to a work accommodation. They said the Fourth Circuit’s ruling was counter to the intent of anti-discrimination laws, that it was bad for the health of mothers and children, that it was bad for the economy, bad for business, and even could encourage women to get abortions. In all, 11 amicus briefs were filed supporting Young and none supporting UPS. Even the members of Congress who passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act explained that they intended for the act the court was interpreting to protect people just like Young, and that the court ruling against her “ignored the unambiguous mandate of the PDA requiring employees to consider only the ability or inability to work in determining a pregnant worker’s entitlement to benefits.”
As expected by many advocates, the justices’ ruling was rather narrow in its holding. The court held only that Young should have an opportunity to make her case. And the justices’ ruling took into account neither a 2008 change to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, nor new 2014 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines that bolster protections for pregnant women. What’s more, UPS announced since Young’s lawsuit that it would change its policy going forward and allow workers to stay on the job performing light-duty work. Still, the National Women’s Law Center’s Emily Martin told ThinkProgress earlier this year that any ruling for Young would help many pregnant women. “Even if the law has changed, it will only make it easier for those women,” Martin said. A recent survey by NWLC found that many women who felt they needed to alter their work duties or take more frequent breaks still fear requesting those accommodations.
What’s more, the ruling comes as a sigh of relief to many who worried about what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg referred to as the court’s “blind spot” on women’s issues. In 2007, the court’s five conservative male justices rejected Lilly Ledbetter’s fair pay lawsuit, in a decision later overturned by an act of Congress. In 2011, they turned back the largest-ever class of women alleging gender discrimination by Wal-Mart. And in 2013, that same voting bloc held that many corporations get to decide when their female employees should have access to contraception. Commenting on this blind spot, Ginsburg said in an interview recently, “[T]he justices continue to think and change so I am ever hopeful that if the court has a blind spot today, its eyes will be open tomorrow.”
This time, one of those justices — Chief Justice John Roberts — contributed the fifth vote to make a majority that aligned with women’s rights. And perhaps even more remarkably, Justice Samuel Alito wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment which provided a sixth vote in favor of Young.