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03.26.2015 Supreme Court Decision Forces Many Employers to Extend Light Duty Work to Pregnant Employees

BY: DAVID C. BURTON AND J. NELSON WILKINSON 

In recent years, employment attorneys and HR professionals have been anxiously discussing a series of lawsuits addressing when employers must afford light duty work to pregnant employees. In the past, courts generally held that an employer did not violate the law if it refused to extend light duty work accommodations to pregnant employees, even if that employer granted light duty work to employees injured on-the-job. More recently, however, a split amongst the courts developed, with some holding that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) required employers to extend the same accommodations to pregnant employees that it extended to employees injured on-the-job. Other circuits, including the Fourth Circuit encompassing Virginia, maintained the old rule, holding that distinguishing between employees injured on-the-job and all other employees (including pregnant employees) did not improperly discriminate against pregnant employees.

A Supreme Court decision issued on March 25 appears to have resolved that split in favor of those asserting the broader reading of the PDA. In Peggy Young v. United Parcel Service, the Supreme Court reasoned that employers could be found to have engaged in illegal discrimination against pregnant employees by denying light-duty accommodations regularly extended to workers injured on-the-job. The case came before the Supreme Court on appeal from a Fourth Circuit decision granting summary judgment to the employer. The employees’ case is now reinstated, and the matter has been remanded to the Fourth Circuit to issue an opinion consistent with the Supreme Court’s new holding.

Many employers favored limited policies granting light-duty work only to employees’ injured-on-the job, because such policies reduce worker’s compensation-related expenses while limiting the entitlement to light duty work among other employees. Such policies are now effectively verboten. Employers need to craft accommodation policies consistent with the new legal landscape. 

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