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SCOTUS to decide landmark pregnancy discrimination case

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in a very important case examining the important -- and always contentious -- issue of pregnancy discrimination.

Specifically, the court is now being called upon to decide whether employers are required to provide their pregnant employees with special accommodations if they will have difficulty performing their regular work duties.

The case in question involves an employee who worked as a truck driver for shipping giant United Parcel Service back in 2006, and the company's subsequent denial of her request for a temporary shift in her work duties.

Legal documents indicate that the employee secured a note from her treating medical professional indicating that she should not lift packages weighing more than 20 pounds.

When the note was submitted along with her request for light duty to the interested parties at UPS, she was informed that no such accommodations were made for off-work incidents, and she subsequently lost her job and health insurance for nine months.

The employee eventually filed a lawsuit against UPS alleging a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and seeking both back pay and damages.

While UPS ultimately prevailed at both the federal district court and federal appellate court level, the employee successfully pursued review by the nation's highest court.

Here, she argued that fellow drivers who had lost their licenses, or suffered heart attacks or strokes were not similarly sidelined until they recovered like she was, but rather were reassigned to lighter duty for the interim, the exact type of accommodations she sought for herself.

"When two sets of employees experience similar restrictions on their ability to work - one because of pregnancy and the other because of some other condition - the employer must not give any lesser accommodation to the pregnant workers," read her court filings.

For their part, UPS has always maintained that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was not designed to accommodate pregnancy, but rather bar intentional discrimination on the part of the employer. To that end, the company asserts that it was simply enforcing a generally applied policy calling for no accommodations for disabilities attributable to off-site incidents.

"A facially neutral policy, a policy that does not single out pregnant women on its face for unfavorable treatment, has never been determined to be intentionally discriminatory on its face," argued the attorneys for UPS. 

It will be very interesting to see what the court decides in this pregnancy discrimination case. It should be noted, however, that UPS will actually change its internal policy starting in 2015 to provide accommodations for pregnant workers.

Experts indicate this policy shift is likely due to 1) nine states passing laws mandating these accommodations and 2) the announcement by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission back in July that pregnant employees must be provided with the same accommodations offered to other workers with the same physical limitations.

Stay tuned for updates ...

Sources: National Public Radio, "Did UPS discriminate against a pregnant worker by letting her go?" Nina Totenberg, Dec. 3, 2014; Reuters, "U.S. top court to weigh UPS pregnancy discrimination claim," Lawrence Hurley, Dec. 2, 2014

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