The Supreme Court is considering how much employers must do to accommodate pregnant workers under a federal law aimed at combating discrimination against them.
The case before the justices Wednesday involves a woman who had been working as a driver for United Parcel Service (UPS) in Landover, Maryland. Peggy Young submitted a doctor's note when she asked for a temporary assignment to avoid lifting heavy packages after she became pregnant in 2006.
UPS refused, and placed Young on unpaid leave. As a result, she lost her health insurance, and couldn't collect unemployment because she hadn't been fired. So she took her fight to court.
"I was willing to work," Young has said. "I was willing to do my regular job, and they wouldn't let me, period.... We shouldn't be made to choose between our job and having a child."
Young was in the courtroom Wednesday to hear the justices talk about employers' responsibilities under the 36-year-old Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Mothers and women's rights activists attended a rally in support of Young.
Questions from several justices during arguments suggested the court could be searching for a middle ground.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan pressed UPS lawyer Caitlin Halligan over the Atlanta-based package delivery company's refusal to find a temporary assignment for Young.
The UPS policy "accommodates some workers but puts all pregnant women on one side of the line," Kagan said.
Young's dispute with UPS arose after she gave her supervisor a doctor's note recommending that she not lift packages heavier than 20 pounds. Young said she dealt almost exclusively with overnight letters, but UPS said its drivers must be able to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds.
"They basically told me, 'Go home. We don't have anything you can do until you're no longer pregnant because you're a liability'," Young previously told News4.
Young returned to work two months after her daughter was born, but left the company in 2009. She says she should have been offered light-duty work because some other UPS workers were, including workers with injuries and workers who'd lost their driving privileges because of drunken driving.
In defending the company's actions, Halligan said in court Wednesday that UPS did not provide light-duty work to any employees unless they were injured on the job or had a condition that was covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
UPS has since changed its policy and says it will voluntarily offer pregnant women light duty starting in January. But the company contends it complied with the law in Young's case.
Halligan noted that nine states now have laws that require an accommodation for pregnant workers.
The question at the Supreme Court is whether UPS was required to accommodate Young, 42, because it gave temporary assignments to some workers, including those who were injured on the job or had a condition that was covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The Obama administration and an unusual array of liberal and conservative interest groups are backing Young, who now lives with her daughter, Triniti, in Lorton, Virginia.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is among those on UPS' side. The chamber says many of its members do provide additional benefits to pregnant workers but says policies at thousands of companies would be upended if the court were to rule for Young.
Lower federal courts have rejected her claim.
A decision in Young v. UPS, 12-1226, is expected by late June 2015.
Since the justices agreed in July to hear the case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated guidance to employers to make clear that they should accommodate people in Young's situation. Yet the U.S. Postal Service, an independent federal agency, maintains the practice that UPS has now abandoned, UPS said in court papers. The Postal Service declined to comment.
Last year, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a pregnant worker protection bill into law for the state, but the new law came too late to help Young.
More than 120 Democrats are backing legislation that would change the federal law to make explicit the requirement to accommodate pregnant women.
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey said the bill is modeled after the landmark disabilities law. "It would make sure that pregnant workers have the same measure of protection," Casey said before the start of a rally outside the court in support of Young.