• Are Pregnant Employees Entitled to Light Duty?

    Friday December 11, 2015

    Probably, as a result of the Supreme Court's recent decision in Young v. UPS.

    Many employers have had a long-standing policy or practice of providing temporary light duty only to employees who are returning to work from an on-the-job injury. "Light duty" is typically a job or project that is specially created to help an injured worker that would otherwise not exist. Limiting these special assignments to workers who get hurt at work makes sense. Employers feel an obligation to their employees that get hurt at work, and employers have a financial interest in these employees coming back to work as soon as possible. Also, most employers have limited light duty opportunities and, therefore, want to preserve them for employees who are recovering from work-related accidents. Someone with a condition unrelated to the job, such as injuries from a car accident or pregnancy, does not get light duty under the typical policy. If the employee with a non-occupational injury cannot do the essential functions of the job, even with accommodation, he must go on leave of absence.

    That is what happened to the pregnant UPS driver in Young v. UPS. Her doctor put her on a lifting restriction that prevented her from lifting some UPS packages. Although it would have allowed someone injured at work with the same lifting restriction to perform light duty, Young had to go on unpaid leave and could not afford to keep her health insurance.

    Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court rejected both parties' positions and created a new standard for judging the legality of such policies. If a company's policy "significantly burdens" pregnant workers (as most light duty policies do), the company must advance "sufficiently strong" reasons to justify the burden. Cost and inconvenience are not sufficient, the Court said. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court for further litigation under this new standard. Given what the Court has required that it prove, however, UPS is not likely to be able to successfully defend its policy.

    Policies like UPS's, which are common, will now be very difficult, if not impossible, to defend. Even if such a policy can be successfully defended, an employer will spend a lot of money doing it. In our opinion, an employer would have to have substantial operational reasons, apart from cost and inconvenience, to limit light duty opportunities to only those who have been hurt at work and to the exclusion of pregnant workers. All employers should review their policies and consult with counsel about the ability to defend them after this important change in the law.

    Click on the link to read the Young v. UPS U.S. Supreme Court decision.




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