Supreme Court Decision in Young v. United Parcel Service Raises New Questions about Light Duty Work Policies
By: Michelle Sullivan, Esq. & Allotta, Farley Co, LPA
The availability of light duty is an important concern for employees at many law enforcement agencies. Officers face injuries and conditions resulting from on- and off-duty activities that can restrict their ability to work full-duty and rely on light-duty to avoid a loss of income or break in benefits. As more women enter the law enforcement profession, they are also competing for light-duty assignments when restricted from full-duty as the result of a pregnancy. In many cases, these employees have not worked long enough to accumulate sick leave that will cover their absences if denied light duty, and stand to take significant time without pay because of their pregnancy-related restrictions. In many cases, employees are denied light duty unless they have medical restrictions as the result of a workplace injury.
The Supreme Court recently issued a long-anticipated decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, 135 S.Ct. 1338 (2015) that poses more questions than answers as to how and when an employer must permit an employee to work light duty. The Young case arose under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) as the result a UPS employee who was denied light duty during her pregnancy. In Young, the Supreme Court set forth a new standard to be applied to pregnancy discrimination cases, will likely push employers to reevaluate their light duty work programs for all employees.
The Plaintiff, Peggy Young, worked for UPS as a part-time driver. Her job required her to lift boxes weighing as much as 70 pounds without assistance. Young became pregnant and her doctor restricted her to lifting no more than 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy and no more than 10 pounds for the remainder of her pregnancy. UPS had a formal light duty policy, allowing light duty work for employees with work restrictions as the result of on-the-job injuries and accommodation of employees suffering from a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Young requested a light duty assignment, but UPS denied her request because her condition did not fall within the parameters of the UPS light duty policy. As the result, UPS placed Young on unpaid leave for the duration of her pregnancy. Young filed suit against UPS alleging discrimination under the PDA.
While Young and UPS litigated her pregnancy discrimination case, the EEOC issued a controversial Pregnancy Discrimination Enforcement Guidance in the summer of 2014. For many years, the EEOC has remained silent on the issue of employer obligations to provide light duty for pregnant employees. In its Guidance, the EEOC explained that because Title VII and its Pregnancy Discrimination require employers to treat pregnant employees the same as any employee with medical restrictions unrelated to pregnancy, employers must accommodate the limitations of pregnant employees in the same manner it would accommodate other employees with “similar limitations.” The EEOC specifically rejected the position that the PDA does not require an employer to provide light duty to pregnant employees when it has a policy specifically limiting light duty to employees with work-related injuries.
In the Young decision, the Supreme Court crafted a new standard to be applied in pregnancy discrimination cases. In doing so, the Court declined to apply the EEOC Guidance issued in 2014 because the Guidance was issued after the Court accepted review of the case and was inconsistent with the position the EEOC adopted in past cases. However, the Court also rejected UPS’ argument that light duty policy was lawful because it treated all employees with non-work related conditions and injuries the same, stating that this position contradicted the clear intent behind the PDA that pregnant employees be treated the same as employees with “similar” medical restrictions.
Instead, the Court held that an employee alleging pregnancy discrimination can make a threshold case for discrimination by showing that the employer failed to accommodate her restrictions, but accommodated similar restrictions for other employees with non-pregnancy related conditions. The employer is then given an opportunity to demonstrate a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for treating pregnant employees differently from employees with other medical conditions. However, the Court cautioned that the reason “cannot consist simply of a claim that it is more expensive or less convenient to add pregnant women to the category of those (“similar in their ability or inability to work”) whom the employer accommodates.” The employee can then rebut the employer’s reason by showing how the articulated reason is not true, or that the employer’s program imposes a significant burden on pregnant employees or that the employer’s reasons are not sufficient to justify the burden placed on pregnant workers.
Light duty assignments can be few and far between, if permitted at all, particularly at small law enforcement agencies. Historically, many employers either restrict light duty assignments or give preference to employees who have medical restrictions as the result of work-related injuries and conditions. Such policies help to control the number of people who would compete for a limited number of light duty assignments and help the employer save money on workers’ compensation costs. However, the Court’s holding in Young will now call this type of justification into question. Additionally, the EEOC Guidance remains in effect and employers must take this Guidance into consideration when drafting and applying light duty policies. While some may view the Young decision as a victory for expectant mothers, the decision raises many questions as to measures employers must take to offer pregnant employees light duty work, particularly in light of the EEOC Guidance on this topic and obligations Employers face where the conditions associated with pregnancy qualify for accommodation under the ADA. As the result of these questions that remain, employers are likely to review and revise their light duty policies or eliminate such policies altogether as the result of the Young decision.
Union representatives must be vigilant of employer efforts to modify or eliminate light duty policies and be mindful of the effect those changes will have on bargaining unit members. If you have questions regarding application of or possible changes to a light duty policy, please do not hesitate to contact your OPBA attorney.