It’s a new day and age for pregnant employee protections. As a result, old-school light duty policies are getting torn to shreds in court. Here’s what they can’t say anymore:
Light duty is only available to employees who are injured on the job.
That phrase, and anything to that effect, will be shot down in court if challenged by a pregnant worker whose light duty request has been denied.
It just happened in a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit filed by Erin Bray, a police officer, against her employer, the Town of Wake Forest.
When Bray informed her department that she was pregnant and needed to go on light duty, she supplied a doctor’s note that listed her work restrictions as no running, jumping or lifting anything over 25 lbs. Her doctor advised that she “be placed in a light duty position, preferably clerical or administrative work.”
Her employer’s reaction?
Bray was fired. The police department’s reasoning: She couldn’t perform the essential functions of her job, and it was following the department’s policy that light duty only be offered to those injured on the job (to keep them off of workers’ comp).
That’s when Bray sued claiming pregnancy discrimination.
Why the policy was a no-go
The police department argued she didn’t have a claim, and tried to get her lawsuit thrown out.
It said it didn’t discriminate against Bray based on her pregnancy, because it treated her as it would any employee suffering from an injury that wasn’t work-related.
But after the Supreme Court’s latest pregnancy discrimination ruling in Young v. UPS, that reasoning doesn’t fly anymore.
In a nutshell, the High Court’s ruling stated that such policies create an illegal disparate impact on pregnant workers, which is illegal under the Civil Right Act.
Following the Supreme Court’s precedent, the court in Bray’s case said her allegations were sufficient enough to state a claim on the grounds that the “practice of denying accommodation requests by pregnant workers while granting them to other similarly temporarily disabled male police officers has a disparate impact on pregnant women.”
Now her case will proceed to trial where the Town of Wake Forest will face either an expensive courtroom battle or settlement.
The safest course of action to take
Here’s the bottom line when it comes to pregnancy discrimination: Yes, it’s possible there are some limited circumstances in which employers don’t have to at least attempt to find accommodations or light duty assignments to keep pregnant workers on the job.
But finding those circumstances is nearly impossible once you see how the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) intertwine. (Read HR Morning’s quick-hitting breakdown here).
What the federal government and the courts expect from employers now is for them to do their absolute best to keep a pregnant employee on the job.
As a result, this is the safest policy employers can adopt:
If an employee has a pregnancy-related impairment that hinders her ability to perform a job, [insert company name] will attempt to see if it can provide a reasonable accommodation that would allow the employee to continue to perform her job.