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Supreme court rules against UPS in pregnancy discrimination case

Could pregnancy threaten your job?
Could pregnancy threaten your job?

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that Peggy Young's discrimination case against her former employer, UPS, may go forward. In a 6-3 vote, the justices dismissed a decision from a lower court that had blocked her suit, according to Reuters. Now, the case will proceed in a lower court.

A quick rundown: Young, then a part-time driver for UPS, became pregnant in 2006. Her midwife advised her not to lift more than 20 pounds for the remainder of her pregnancy — a problem in a job that required her to be able to lift 70. When she asked for light duty, reasoning that the UPS offered that option to disabled and injured workers, the company said she was ineligible and put her on unpaid leave.

Young and her lawyers said this violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Here's a rundown of five things you need to know about this case.

1) Companies have interpreted what it means to discriminate against a pregnant woman differently

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act says that pregnant women "shall be treated the same for all employment-related purpose ... as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work."

That might sound concrete enough, but companies have interpreted it very differently, as Claire Zillman writes at Fortune. Some companies believe that all that matters is whether a policy is "pregnancy neutral." UPS said it didn't discriminate against Young because she was pregnant. Rather, it said its policy was to only give people lighter duty if they were injured on the job, legally disabled, or had lost their federal driver's certificate. Other companies have gone beyond neutrality, giving pregnant and non-pregnant workers alike the same accommodations based on their physical restrictions.

The lower courts found in favor of UPS. As Scotusblog explains, the Fourth Circuit appeals court argued that UPS didn't single out pregnant workers for worse treatment, and didn't deny pregnant workers the same rights as those who did meet UPS's requirements for light duty.

So what mattered here was how the Supreme Court interpreted the Act. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that there was "genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young's," according to Reuters. The dissenting justices argued that this placed new burdens on employers to justify their policies.

2) UPS has already changed its policies

UPS's rules at the time Young was a driver were different from its rules now. In October, the company said it would start offering light-duty work "as an accommodation to pregnant employees with lifting or other physical restrictions to the same extent" as it gives those accommodations with similar restrictions as a result of on-the-job injuries.

UPS says that's because the policy has changed. One big shift came last year, when the EEOC issued new guidance saying that certain conditions arising from pregnancy can be treated as disabilities, and that employers should treat them that way. That new guidance arose in part from the 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

3) The Obama Administration didn't want the court to take the case

In a May amicus brief, the Solicitor General and other Justice Department officials wrote that courts had misinterpreted the PDA. But they also argued that in light of those changes to the ADA, the court shouldn't hear the case.

The 2008 ADA greatly broadened what constitutes a disability, and the EEOC has said that includes some pregnancy-related conditions. As BNA reports, the Solicitor General argued that the amendments "may lead courts to reconsider their approach to evaluating a pregnant employee's claim that other employees with similar limitations on their ability to work." Justice argued at the time that EEOC's then-forthcoming pregnancy guidance would render the Supreme Court's consideration of this case unnecessary.

But the Obama administration's wishes aside, those changes happened after Young filed her suit so they don't apply to her case.

4) Young v. UPS united pro-life and pro-choice organizations

Both the anti-abortion right and the feminist left filed amicus briefs on behalf of Young, though they come at it from different angles. Women's rights groups like the Women's Law Project and Legal Momentum (formerly known as the NOW Legal Defense Fund) signed onto briefs arguing Young's side of the case. In one of those briefs, these groups argue that the Fourth Circuit was incorrect and "misconceive[d] the gender stereotyping behind pregnancy discrimination."

Meanwhile, a brief sponsored by Americans United for Life argues that in creating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Congress was trying to "protect women from economic pressure to abort their children because of pregnancy discrimination." These groups don't agree about much, but support for a broad view of pregnancy discrimination brings them together.

5) Lots of women work well into their pregnancies (and need the money)

More than 80 percent of first-time mothers who work while pregnant work into the final month of their pregnancies, according to a 2013 National Women's Law Center report. For women with desk jobs, pregnancy isn't always a huge impediment. But for women who do more strenuous work, the physical limitations that pregnancy can cause are frequently a major problem.

And women are increasingly the primary or sole breadwinners in their families, as Pew has reported. Fully 40 percent of women were their household's main earner in 2011, including the 25 percent who are single mothers. When pregnancy threatens a woman's job, it also threatens her family's livelihood.