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A case dealing with women's reproductive rights is before the U.S. Supreme Court today. And this time, pro-life and pro-choice groups are on the same side - the issue, pregnancy discrimination. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG: In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that an employer that doesn't include pregnancy in its disability plan is not discriminating based on gender. It's just omitting coverage for one disability. Congress quickly amended the sex discrimination law to ban discrimination based on pregnancy. But since then, most federal appeals courts have interpreted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act narrowly. Today's case is a test of what's required under that law. The case was brought by Peggy Young, an Annapolis woman who had been driving a delivery truck for UPS for four years when she became pregnant. UPS requested that she contact the company nurse, and the nurse asked for a doctor's note. Young explained to her doctor that her job involved driving the early morning shift at the airport and that almost all of her pickups involved envelopes and small packages. She says the doctor thought the request for a note odd but wrote one recommending that Young not lift more than 20 pounds.
PEGGY YOUNG: When I took the note in to the nurse, she basically said, well, we don't give alternative work or light duty to off-work incidents. I'm like, I'm pregnant. There's not an incident here, and I can do my regular job. They would not allow me to.
TOTENBERG: She lost her job and her UPS health insurance for nine months.
YOUNG: It was financially difficult for us to have to deal with me not getting my pay every week. A lot of times, I didn't sleep so well. It was very disturbing-some that you couldn't work when you wanted to work. They coded me in their system as disability, but I didn't qualify for disability because I could work. I'm a normal person; I was just pregnant.
TOTENBERG: Young sued UPS for back pay and damages under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. UPS fought the suit, contending that it treated Young just as it treated other employees who were limited in their ability to work as a result of events that took place off the job. UPS policy is that drivers are supposed to be able to lift up to 70 pounds. And it didn't matter to the company that Young's actual job required her to lift more than 20 pounds only a few times a month and that a coworker was willing to help. In the Supreme Court today, lawyer Caitlin Halligan, representing UPS, will tell the justices that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was not intended to accommodate pregnancy. Rather, she says, the act bars only intentional discrimination by an employer, in other words, an employer with an animus towards pregnant employees. UPS, she asserts, has no such animus. It has a generally-applied policy that does not accommodate disabilities that occur off the job.
CAITLIN HALLIGAN: A facially neutral policy, a policy that does not single out pregnant women on its face for unfavorable treatment, has never been determined to be intentionally discriminatory on its face.
TOTENBERG: UPS prevailed in the lower courts. But there was no trial, and some of the facts in the case are in dispute. Representing Peggy Young in the Supreme Court today, lawyer Samuel Bagenstos will tell the justices that UPS drivers who lost their licenses were assigned to light duty until they could get their licenses back. In other words, under the union contract, non-pregnant workers with temporary disabilities were treated better than pregnant ones.
SAMUEL BAGENSTOS: We have examples of drivers who had had strokes, drivers who had had hypertension, whom UPS temporarily reassigned to non-driving positions that didn't require heavy lifting while they worked to get their health back, so they could be driving and lifting again. And that's exactly the same treatment that UPS refused to give Peggy Young.
TOTENBERG: He maintains that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires pregnant women to be treated the same way that other individuals are treated who have temporary disabilities and limitations. UPS contends that it did that. It argues that workers who suffer on-the-job injuries are in a separate category. And it disputes the contention that it accommodated anyone with light duty if they could not drive or lift because of events that occurred off the job. While today's case could have enormous ramifications for women in the workplace, other factors are moving to limit policies like the one at UPS. Indeed, after the Supreme Court agreed to hear Peggy Young's case, UPS changed its policy to accommodate pregnant workers like her. The company notes that nine states have now adopted laws mandating such accommodations. But there's another reason as well. In 2008, Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act to require accommodation of temporary disabilities. And the federal government has interpreted that coverage to include accommodations for pregnancy. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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