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EEOC Jumps the Gun on SCOTUS

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In July the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued new enforcement guidance under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), instead of waiting for a ruling from a case coming soon before the U.S. Supreme Court on the same issue. The guidance represents the first published guidelines on protections involving pregnancy from the agency since 1983.

The PDA prohibits employment discrimination on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. The case in front of the Supreme Court involves a question of whether an employer is required to accommodate an employee who is unable to perform the essential function of her job due to pregnancy-related restrictions.

The case was appealed from the 4th Circuit, which agreed with the trial court under a summary judgment ruling that if an employer has a policy restricting work limitations that treats both pregnant workers and non-pregnant workers alike, it has complied with the PDA. In this case, the essential function of the employee’s job (with UPS) required her to lift, lower, leverage and manipulate packages weighing up to 70 pounds. The employee had a note from her doctor which limited her to only lifting 20 pounds during the first half of her pregnancy, and then 10 pounds during the second half. The employer also had a policy of offering light duty only to those employees injured while on the job or suffering from a permanent impairment under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

UPS argued that since the employee did not fall into either category, it was not required to accommodate her. She was denied light duty and instead was accommodated with an extended leave of absence. The employee returned to work after giving birth, where she sued UPS for discrimination for, among other reasons, discrimination on the basis of pregnancy in violation of the PDA.

If SCOTUS agrees with the 4th Circuit, it will render the EEOC’s new guidance as moot; however, in the interim, we are warning employers to proceed carefully in evaluating their obligation to provide accommodations to workers with pregnancy-related limitations.

Unfortunately, this contradiction in agency rules comes at a time when the number of pregnancy complaints with the EEOC is rising, with published statistics showing that these have escalated by 37 percent between 1997 and 2013.

Hilary Atkins

Posted In: Legal

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