Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Pregnancy Rights at Work

The decision could affect how moms-to-be are treated on the job.

Pregnant woman working Getty Images: Paul Bradbury

In a game-changing decision about how pregnant women are treated at work, the Supreme Court has ruled that pregnant workers are entitled to the same accommodations given to any worker restricted by a disability.

It all started when the pregnant Peggy Young told her employer, the United Parcel Service, that she shouldn't lift anything heavy, doctor's orders. Her company responded by putting her on unpaid leave.

The result? A loss of her benefits, pension and seven months of pay for, what she could see, as no good reason. So she sued under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the case is going all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) forbids any discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to employment, including hiring, firing, salary, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, benefits (like health or vacation days) and any other term or condition of employment.

If a woman is unable to do her job because of a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, the employer must treat her the same way as it treats any other temporarily disabled employee, by reasonably accommodating her condition.

In this case, Young felt she was not treated in the same way. Most of the packages she shifted were light enough to manage—and certainly lighter than the flowers she delivered as part of a second job. UPS had made similar accommodations, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, for workers who were injured on the job and had lost their driving certification from the Department of Transportation.

Young's lawyer, Sharon Fast Gustafson, told the New York Times that UPS had even accommodated people who had lost their driver's licenses "due to drunk-driving convictions." "They would give them a separate driver to drive the truck while they were delivering packages," she said.

UPS felt it was on the right side of the law, countering that Young was treated the same as other employees with similar lifting restrictions.

The Obama administration and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is known for her take-no-prisoners approach in support of women's issues, have voiced their support of Young.

"This was a woman whose doctor told her she couldn't lift more than, I think, 20 pounds," Justice Bader Ginsburg said in an interview for Elle. "For people who were temporarily disabled, the employer would make an accommodation, but the employer said, 'We're not making an accommodation for her because she's not disabled.'"

The victory in the Supreme Court case of Young v. UPS sets an important legal precedent for all women who are working while pregnant—not just those who are unable to do their job. "This ruling is a gain for women across the country. It furthers the purpose of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which was passed more than 35 years ago with the goal of putting women on an equal footing and ensuring that they can't be fired or forced onto leave when they become pregnant," said Lenora Lapidus, director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project. "Today's decision sends a strong message to employers that they can't leave pregnant workers out."

This should come as music to the ears of the 40% of American families who rely on women as their sole breadwinner. As Young summed it up: "I don't want my daughters to have to choose between having a baby and supporting a family."