Why Getting Pregnant Cost This Woman Her Paycheck

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The Supreme Court is weighing in on an important reproductive rights case today — one that could alter the way women are treated in the workplace in a major way. And, in a weird twist, this case has anti-abortion groups and left-leaning women’s rights organizations actually agreeing on something for once.
When Peggy Young got pregnant, her doctor told her she shouldn’t lift packages heavier than 20 pounds. When she asked her bosses at UPS for a chance to do lighter-duty work, they refused and put her on unpaid leave. She sued, and seven years later, her case has landed in the Supreme Court.
Though she has already lost in two Maryland courts, Young’s much publicized plight has broad ramifications for women nationwide who, understandably, don’t want to choose between their jobs and their pregnancies. This is why you should care.

What's the case?

As the SCOTUS blog summarizes, Young v. United Parcel Service is officially about “whether, and in what circumstances, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires an employer that provides work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations to provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.'”

The core of Young’s case is this: Do companies have to let pregnant women continue working even when they lose the ability to perform certain aspects of their jobs? Young’s doctor instructed her not to carry anything heavier than 20 pounds, but her workplace required its drivers to be prepared to lift up to 70 pounds. Though Young told her supervisors that she rarely lifted anything heavier than envelopes at work, UPS made her take unpaid leave for the last six and a half months of her pregnancy. In addition to her wages, Young lost her disability benefits and her pension.
On an equally frustrating note, Young claims UPS has accommodated workers who were far less capable of doing their jobs than she was — drivers who'd been disciplined for accidents and unsafe driving; even workers who’d lost their licenses after being convicted of DUI.
The difficulty at UPS wasn't the end of it for Young; the loss of her salary forced her to find other work to keep up with her bills, including healthcare after her insurance was terminated. She ended up taking a job with a florist that had her lifting much heavier packages (and had no health benefits).
When Young sued the company in federal court in 2008, UPS responded that “its collective bargaining agreement with the Teamsters union didn't allow light-duty assignments for ‘off the job’ injuries, which is how the company classified pregnancy.”

What's the precedent?

Young’s case is obviously not the first major women’s workplace-discrimination suit. According to the New York Times, back in 1976, General Electric Co. v. Gilbert “ruled that discrimination based on pregnancy was not a form of sex discrimination.”

The 2007 ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. was also a milestone (though not of the positive variety). The Supreme Court ruled against plaintiff Lilly Ledbetter, who did not complain about her gendered pay discrimination until years down the road; Title VII of 1964’s Civil Rights Act had put strict time limits for people launching workplace discrimination suits. Ledbetter described her employment situation at Goodyear as one of “intentionally discriminatory pay decisions that occurred outside the limitations period." But there was a light at the end of that tunnel: In 2009, Congress essentially reversed that former ruling when it passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Pregnancy discrimination suits still occur often, of course, and many of them get resolved. In 2013, 3,580 charges filed with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) were resolved, and there were 436 settlements.

Why it matters

According to Young, her case is about far more than money. The appeal has broad implications for women all over the country — who comprise 47% of the labor force, by the way — that plan to continue working through their pregnancies. Per the Census Bureau's 2012 stats, approximately 62% of women “who had given birth in the previous year [remained] in the labor force.”

For what it’s worth, since Young’s first district trial, UPS has changed its policies on pregnant workers; it now considers accommodations for pregnant workers with pregnancy-related activity limits. And, though the Obama administration was formerly unsupportive of Young’s plight — it implored the Supreme Court not to review her case at all — it’s since changed its tune, releasing statements about reversing its prior position on the case.
A few months back, Judith Lichtman, the ex-president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, noted in a press call, "Every single [woman] in America ought to be paying attention to how the Supreme Court views the treatment of pregnant women in the workplace.” We’d have to agree with her on that.

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