Law School Faculty Blog

A Step Back for Pregnant Women: A Misinterpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978


Prof. Michelle TravisThe Fourth Circuit recently took a step backwards for pregnant women in the workplace when it misinterpreted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) in Young v. UPS. Because this ruling sets us back 35 years to a pre-PDA era when courts tolerated blatant pregnancy discrimination, I joined an amicus brief with Legal Momentum and other employment discrimination scholars urging the United States Supreme Court to grant certiorari to review the Young case and resolve the resulting circuit court split on the proper interpretation of the PDA.

Congress enacted the PDA to overturn judicial interpretations of Title VII that had excluded pregnancy discrimination from the law’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex. The PDA has two parts. The first establishes that pregnancy discrimination is indeed a form of sex discrimination. The second requires employers to treat pregnant women “the same for all employment-related purposes…as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” Although the second part was intended to prevent employers from using pregnancy to exclude women from workplace benefits, the Fourth Circuit’s ruling allows employers to engage in precisely that form of sex-based discrimination.

Peggy Young was a UPS driver who sought a temporary light-duty position when her doctor placed her on a 20-pound lifting restriction during pregnancy. Although UPS provides light-duty to workers with a disability or a workplace injury, UPS refused Peggy’s request. UPS placed Peggy on unpaid leave—which meant the loss of income and medical benefits—until she returned after her child’s birth. Despite the lack of any comparator requirements in the statute’s plain language, the Fourth Circuit held that UPS’s exclusion of pregnant workers from its light-duty policy did not violate the PDA because pregnant workers are not similarly situated with workers who have non-pregnancy-related temporary restrictions.

Although the Young decision is most likely to harm women in low-wage, physically demanding jobs by allowing employers to exclude pregnancy from light-duty policies, the broad holding will allow employers to carve out pregnancy from a wide range of benefits and accommodations if the Supreme Court does not grant cert and clarify the PDA’s proper application and scope.

Read the press release about the amicus brief in support of the Petitioner’s cert petition in Young v. UPS. 

Download a PDF of the amicus brief.

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