Peggy Young never really considered feminism part of her job description, but when she was expecting, she took on an unexpected role as an anti-discrimination activist at United Parcel Service (UPS) in Maryland. As a delivery driver, she should have had a chance to maintain her job during her pregnancy or take “light duty” if medically necessary. But this seemingly mundane adjustment was denied, and her workplace dispute has become a national political flashpoint.
Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments debating the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, fixating on a convoluted clause that states that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same” as other workers “not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”
The meaning of “ability or inability” has sparked a semantic battle over the legal assessment of a pregnant workers’ ability to work, and relative disability compared with non-pregnant coworker. But if the letter of the law was so ambiguous in Young’s protection from discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, didn’t that betray the spirit of the Act?
It shouldn’t have been so complicated: Young handled light air mail during morning shifts, and her midwife had advised her to “lift no more than 20 pounds during my pregnancy.” As Young recounted in a testimonial published by National Women’s Law Center, she was more than willing to “to work either a light duty job or my regular job.” But management said company policy provided “no light duty for pregnancy,” and pressured her to stay off the job “because I was too much of a liability.”
The UPS health manager… told me that I needed to get a note from my doctor saying that I was fully disabled and could not work at all. That was not true. I could work. I wanted to work. My family needed my pay, and I needed my medical benefits.
As her due date neared, Young suddenly found herself not just deprived of income, but also cut off from her work-provided health insurance coverage.
Advocates trace Young’s dilemma to a loophole in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act: under the narrow legal interpretations of some courts, pregnant workers are typically left out of disability protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued a ruling that clarified employers’ obligation to provide “reasonable accommodations” (for example, allowing a woman to sit while working at a service counter). Still, pregnant worker protections remain in a legal muddle when applied to increasingly diverse modern workplaces.