Cross-posted from the American Constitution Society’s blog.
“Come back when you’re not pregnant.” That’s what Peggy Young testifies her supervisor told her after her medical provider advised that she avoid lifting more than 20 pounds for the remainder of her pregnancy. Young, a UPS driver from Landover, Maryland, was forced out onto unpaid leave without company health benefits. On December 3, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in her pregnancy discrimination case, Young v. UPS. The case marks the first time the Court will hear a case critical to both women’s health and economic security since the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision in June, when five Justices held that Hobby Lobby and other companies could ignore the legal requirement that they include coverage of birth control in their health insurance plans if they had religious objections to contraception. The Young case will be an important test of whether a majority of the Supreme Court continues to have a “blind spot” where women’s issues are concerned. The stakes are high for women and their families.
Peggy Young was a UPS driver, delivering mostly light air mail packages. When she became pregnant and was given a lifting restriction, she told UPS she was willing to continue to do her regular job, as it was rare that she had to lift anything heavy, or take a light duty assignment—the sort of reassignment that UPS routinely provided to employees who had disabilities as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act and those with on-the-job injuries and those who had lost their commercial drivers’ licenses, whether because of health problems or issues such as DUI convictions. But UPS said that because of her lifting restriction, it would not permit her to continue to do her regular job. And it also refused to reassign her, despite the accommodations it provided to other workers with medical restrictions and despite the command of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act that employers treat pregnant workers as well as they treat those who are “similar in ability or inability to work.” Her family’s financial security was threatened at the moment they needed it the most.
Unfortunately, Young’s story is not unique. Many women, especially those like Young working in jobs traditionally held by men and those working in low-wage, physically demanding positions like retail jobs or nursing assistants, have similar stories. They lose their jobs when they need to sit on a stool instead of standing at a cash register all day, stay off high ladders in their third trimesters, or be allowed to take short breaks to drink water to ward off premature contractions even as their employers make accommodations for workers with non-pregnancy-related medical needs. These women are faced with a choice no one should have to make between their jobs and the health of their pregnancies. UPS itself has since recognized that it makes no sense to place pregnant workers in this position, and recently announced that beginning in 2015 it will provide accommodations to pregnant workers who need them—but it nevertheless continues to fight Young’s claims before the Supreme Court.
In Young v. UPS, the Supreme Court will decide whether the language of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act means what it says when it requires employers to look solely at a pregnant worker’s “ability or inability to work” and treat her the same as it treats nonpregnant workers with similar ability. The court’s ruling will decide whether despite this clear statutory command, employers will be empowered to continue to treat pregnant workers as second-class citizens.
Unfortunately, when it last addressed issues central to women’s health and economic security, a majority of the Court gave scant attention to the impact of its decision on women. In Hobby Lobby, the Court empowered employers to carve out birth control from the insurance coverage otherwise provided to employees for basic preventive health care—despite the fact that for women, controlling when and whether they become pregnant is a basic requirement for health and financial success.
The specific legal questions raised in Hobby Lobby and Young are quite different, but the fundamental question of whether women’s reproductive health needs should be afforded equal treatment with other health needs is the common thread that runs through both. Over the years, this Court has shown a discomforting willingness to permit legal obstacles to be placed in the path of women seeking abortion. Last term, it permitted employers to place obstacles in front of women seeking birth control. This term, it will decide whether employers may also place obstacles in the path of women seeking to maintain healthy pregnancies. Let Young v. UPS mark the end of the Court’s blind spot on the centrality of women’s reproductive health to women’s equal opportunity to achieve and succeed.