Does a company that transfers disabled employees to light duty positions have to do the same for pregnant employees who are not disabled?
Yes, according to recent guidance of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), although the issue is currently pending before the United States Supreme Court. The EEOC recently issued guidance that extends the protections of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) beyond its currently-recognized limits.
Under the PDA, pregnant employees must be treated the same as non-pregnant workers similar in their ability or inability to work. In 2008, Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act to expand its protections and the types of accommodations that may be required for disabled employees, including transfers to light duty positions. With these changes, a broad interpretation of the PDA could “bootstrap” its protections to ADA-mandated accommodations by applying the PDA’s similar treatment requirements to the special treatment accorded disabled employees under the ADA.
While the EEOC has adopted this broad interpretation of the PDA, and accordingly increased the danger of PDA liability on employers throughout the country, most federal courts to date have disagreed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which oversees the federal district courts in Virginia and Maryland, has recently ruled that employers need not extend disabled workers’ light duty accommodations to pregnant workers. Young v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 707 F.2d 437 (4th Cir. 2013). The Fourth Circuit reasoned that such a “pregnancy-blind” light duty policy with respect to disabled workers does not demonstrate any pregnancy-related animus or intent to discriminate. The decision has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has accepted certiorari for its 2014 term.
Until the Supreme Court conclusively decides the issue, employers should be aware of the danger that PDA claims could follow from their ADA compliance efforts to reasonably accommodate disabled employees.