Wednesday brought a new Supreme Court decision that sided with a pregnant employee, and allows her to have her day in court. In some ways though, it’s surprising that she’d even still need the lawsuit.

Photo Credit: cafemama cc
Photo Credit: cafemama cc

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was obviously put into place to protect pregnant workers from any sort of ill-treatment, so it’s hard to believe that when it calls for pregnant employees to be treated the same as their non-pregnant counterparts for employment purposes that it intended to not allow for necessary health reprieves. And yet, that’s what was up for debate in a Supreme Court case decided on Wednesday—one that saw the justices clean up blind spot in legislation aimed to combat a major modern issue.

The case began nearly a decade ago, when UPS worker Peggy Young was told by her doctor that she couldn’t lift anything over 20 pounds for the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy. Given that her job had her loading and unloading boxes as heavy as 70 pounds, Young put in a note with her manager to be put on “light duty.” Unfortunately, light duty is restricted to those injured on the job, those with disabilities protected under the ADA, and drivers who lose their Department of Transportation certification. UPS denied Young’s request, and she sued.

Both sides hinged on the interpretation of one sentence of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA): that pregnant employees “shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes.” As Joshua Feinstein explains in a post for Employers’ Advisor, it’s a case that indicates the changing tide on pregnancy accommodation:

Under the PDA, “…women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes…as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k) (emphasis added). For years, courts consistently interpreted these words to mean that employment decisions affecting pregnant workers had to be “pregnancy-blind.” So, for example, if a pregnant worker requested a workplace accommodation, the employer only had to provide it if it would also accommodate similarly situated non-pregnant workers with comparable limitations.

The plaintiff in Young, however, is urging the Supreme Court to reject this well-settled construction of the statute. Effectively, Young urges that an employer should accommodate a pregnant worker whenever any employee with similar physical restrictions would be entitled to the accommodation, even one who is not otherwise similarly situated. In other words, under this interpretation of the statute, a “pregnancy-neutral” policy would no longer be sufficient to satisfy the statute. In some cases, an employer would be obligated to treat pregnant women preferentially.

And you can understand why that would be the case, being “pregnancy-blind” is the antithesis to eliminating pregnancy discrimination in certain contexts. Sure, it works when making sure a pregnant employee is considered for promotions and benefits the same as other employees, but in cases such as this one, it diverges dramatically from the original purpose.

Young’s lawyer agrees, and it could have a big impact, as relayed by The New Republic:

“The Court recognized that a ruling for UPS would have thwarted Congress’s intent in passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act,” said Samuel Bagenstos, Young’s attorney and a University of Michigan law professor. “The Court made clear that employers may not refuse to accommodate pregnant workers based on considerations of cost or convenience when they accommodate other workers.”

…The case could apply to any working women whose jobs have some physical element, which could be truck drivers, airline workers, or medical care providers— “which is a big set of cases,” Bagenstos said. And it doesn’t just apply to strenuous labor. It could extend to policies like how many bathroom breaks workers get, how long they’re on their feet, and if they can keep a water bottle with them during the day.

Now, it’s important to note this isn’t the end of the case,. The Supreme Court did indeed still rule in favor of Young, but remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit with specific guidelines—that she need only show she was denied an accommodation offered to similar workers, which should be no challenge as UPS offered “light duty” to certain other groups.

It’s worth noting, in the years since Young’s case first hit the courts, there’s been help for pregnant employees from other parts of the system. In 2008, the ADA was updated to include temporary ailments and last year the EEOC released its own guidance on pregnancy discrimination. And though there are some who claim there are two sides to this story, the EEOC’s guidance leaves no room for debate:

By enacting the PDA, Congress sought to make clear that “[p]regnant women who are able to work must be permitted to work on the same conditions as other employees; and when they are not able to work for medical reasons, they must be accorded the same rights, leave privileges and other benefits, as other workers who are disabled from working.” The PDA requires that pregnant employees be treated the same as non-pregnant employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work

Now, it’s important to remember that EEOC guidance did indeed come after the case—with some suspecting it was even a response to it. And the EEOC wasn’t the only body responding as the case was going, as UPS themselves even updated their policy (coincidentally when SCOTUS agreed to hear it) since the case began now recognizing that letting pregnant workers work is good for business.

Which is a good thing to recognize, given that pregnancy discrimination is still a rampant problem in U.S. workplaces. In 2013, 5,342 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed with the EEOC—compare that to the 3,900 that were filed in 1997. Pregnant interviewers and mothers are less likely to be called in for a job interview, even though mothers make up nearly two-thirds of primary or co-income providers. And according to one study, more than one in four pregnant employees experiences bias from their employers due to perceptions of their “desire, ability or commitment” to their jobs.

While we do have to see exactly how the Fourth Circuit decides, this is still grounds for celebration for all pregnant workers. Also, with more and more states are enacting protections for pregnant employees themselves, employers would be wise to enact a plan ahead of time. And as Justice Stephen Breyer writes for SCOTUS’ majority opinion, “why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?”