When Latavia Johnson discovered she was expecting, she didn’t know she was in for an unpleasant surprise at work. Newly hired at a Granite City, Illinois, Walmart, she tried to follow medical advice and ask her managers for a job that didn’t involve heavy lifting—it seemed a simple enough request, since her job was decorating cakes.
But instead of getting light duty, she recalls, she got less work. The management decided that rather than accommodating her with an adjusted workload, Walmart would simply stop giving her shifts. Yet they kept her on the on-call schedule, so she sometimes reported to work as ordered, only to be told by her supervisor, “If I see you here, I’m going to send you home.”
But Johnson didn’t need bed rest, she needed hours, and even after she pushed to be allowed back to work, her schedule was severely reduced. “I just wanted to work and be able to support myself, but I didn’t want to injure myself working,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to lose my baby working.”
This week, the Supreme Court got Johnson’s back. They ruled 6-3 in favor of Peggy Young, a UPS worker who was instead forced onto unpaid leave when she was pregnant. Young, at the time, said she was willing and able to keep working as a letter carrier. But despite UPS’s willingness to make adjustments for male co-workers with disabilities, she was pushed off the job because she was advised to avoid lifting parcels heavier than twenty pounds.
The Supreme Court decided Young should have been able to keep working for UPS and the company was required by law to accommodate her, clarifying the protections of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. That law sought to expand sex discrimination protections by mandating that employers accommodate pregnant workers in a way that was comparable to other workers with similar impairments. Under a narrow reading of the law, the process of proving discrimination “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” requires the worker to show that a non-pregnant worker who faced a “similar” disability would receive more favorable accommodation. This business-friendly reading currently gives employers room to wriggle out of the mandate by contending that pregnancy is a special category of impairment, and thus isn’t exactly comparable to other temporary disabilities that employers cover under disability policies.
But activists have long criticized this interpretation for placing the burden of proof on the worker to show that her circumstances are technically analogous to the needs of a non-pregnant co-worker “similar in their ability or inability to work.” In contrast, under the more stringent Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to be exempt from “reasonable accommodation” standards, an employer must demonstrate that the accommodation would cause “undue hardship” for the business.