A battle over pregnant-worker rights is set to take center stage at the U.S. Supreme Court today, as the justices hear arguments in a pivotal case that pits a former United Parcel Service (UPS) driver against the delivery company. The case could have wide implications, given that nearly 40% of all U.S. households are now led by a “breadwinner mom” who serves as the sole or primary source of her family’s income.
If petitioner Peggy Young is successful in her appeal, pregnant workers would gain rights equivalent to those of workers affected by on-the-job injuries. It has been illegal to fire a pregnant worker, cut her pay, or eliminate her benefits since the 1978 passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). But employers’ obligation to accommodate pregnant workers in other ways has remained a legal gray area.
In 2006 Young, who was then working for UPS in a role that required her to lift packages up to 70 pounds heavy, became pregnant through in vitro fertilization. Doctors, concerned that she should avoid lifting heavy objects, recommended a weight cap of 20 pounds during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy and 10 pounds during the remainder. When UPS declined her request for a job with lighter physical demands, she sued for discrimination under the 1978 legislation.
The underlying claims of Young’s suit have attracted a motley crew of amicus brief-filing supporters from both sides of the aisle. Lawyers from the Justice Department, representing the Obama administration, have argued for a “plain reading” interpretation of the original law that would protect women like Young. At the same time, 23 pro-life organizations, concerned that women may terminate pregnancies rather than jeopardize their income, have also voiced support for Young’s suit: “Protecting the ability to work can increase true freedom for women, promote the common good, and protect the most vulnerable among us. The PDA protects the unborn child as well as the working mother,” they wrote in their brief.
UPS, in contrast, has few outside supporters. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed an amicus brief on the company’s behalf, expressing concern that pregnant-worker accommodations could undermine employers’ ability to manage seniority privileges and similar systems.
The arguments comes at a time when policymakers and managers are beginning to question existing maternity and paternity leave systems. Among developed countries, the U.S. is one of the few remaining places where paid family leave remains a luxury, rather than a right.
The court will issue its ruling on Young v. UPS, 12-1226, in June.