Across America, issues of inequality often find themselves playing out in the workplace. Today, the Supreme Court will consider an issue that many associate with gender equality: The way pregnant women are accommodated by their employers in the workforce.
The case before the nation's highest court, Young v. United Parcel Service, focuses on Peggy Young, a UPS driver who sued the company under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
When Young became pregnant, her doctor advised her, as most women are advised, not to lift more than 20 pounds. Young asked for a light duty assignment under a program UPS has in place for other workers, but the request was denied.
At just 14 weeks pregnant, and unwilling to disregard her doctor's orders, Young was forced to take leave without pay for the next six months. She also lost her medical coverage before having her baby.
Gender and pregnancy discrimination are not new issues to crop up within the workplace, but Gillian Thomas, an attorney and author of the forthcoming book "Because of Sex," says they are becoming more commonplace as more women enter and remain in the workforce, increasingly in roles otherwise reserved for men.
According to Thomas, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act has a clause that requires employers to treat pregnant women who need accommodation the same way that they treat employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.
“Employers have sort of fumbled with this requirement,” she says. “The issue that has been brought forward by this case is what exactly is a worker who is similar to a pregnant worker?”
In the case of Peggy Young, UPS policy did allow accommodations for three different categories of workers—but none of these categories included pregnant women.
“Employers consider [pregnancy] a cost issue and certainly cite the potential burden on other employees,” says Thomas. “I think that’s a human concern—most people have had the experience of being in a workplace and feeling, in one way or another, like they’re being asked to ‘pick up the slack’ for someone else.”
Thomas says that the American workforce fundamentally believes that the optimal employee adheres to a certain set of norms.
“It’s a place where the ideal worker is the only kind whose welcomed,” she says. “It’s someone who is able to come in at 9:00 and leave at 5:00; never needs to take time off for kids; never has a need for their work space or their work hours to be altered in anyway. Employers view any deviation from that—whether it’s people with caregiving responsibilities or physical impairments—as burdensome.”
This stance, Thomas argues, is counterintuitive. According to available research, providing accommodations for workers that make it possible for individuals to stay on the job actually increases retention rates, increases morale, and productivity.
“I think what we’re running up against in this case are stereotypes about pregnant women that are deep seated and go beyond the physical repercussions of pregnancy,” she says. “There’s a notion that having a child makes you a less committed worker, both in terms of your commitment to putting in the hours and staying in the workplace for many years.”
Though the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed to eradicate these stereotypes, they are still alive and well. This is something that is likely troubling for many families since about 85 percent of women will be pregnant at some point in their working lives
“Women experience a vast array of physical complications from pregnancy, even a ‘healthy’ pregnancy, that are going to be interfering with job responsibilities,” says Thomas. “It’s a conflict between stereotypes that we have about mothers and their abilities, and the reality of a physical event that is major and one that most women will experience.”
Thomas says that a societal shift needs to take place when it comes to pregnancy and the workforce. She points to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) when looking for models of progress.
“I think that thinking and that shift needs to occur with pregnancy,” Thomas says. “The best hope that the litigants have in this case—the petitioner, Ms. Young, and her lawyers, and advocates supporting her—is to focus the court on the legislative history of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which was passed 36 years ago. Its promise has never been fulfilled.”