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Why the UPS Pregnancy Discrimination Case Is So Important for Employee Relations

In 2006, Peggy Young, a driver for United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS), informed her employer of her pregnancy and later provided a doctor’s note advising that she should not lift boxes over 20 pounds. She requested a “light duty” accommodation from UPS, the company refused because her pregnancy was viewed as an “off-work” incident, and she was placed on unpaid leave without benefits. In 2007, she sued UPS whom she argued did permit “light duty” accommodations for other employees that experienced on-the-job incidents. Although the lower court ruled against Young, the Supreme Court vacated the lower court decision in a 6-3 vote.

For as long as I have been involved in human resources (HR), employers and HR teams alike have discussed the importance of HR working in partnership with company management. The hope is that HR can play a pivotal, integral role in building a defining company culture and an inclusive workplace. For that reason alone, the UPS case should be collaboratively discussed by every HR and management team in the country because employee relations is about people, not just the technicalities of HR policy. If a company’s HR guidelines do not reflect the human side of employee relations, then they will surely fail.

Workplace Accommodations

The UPS pregnancy discrimination case centers around the concept of a workplace accommodation.

According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy: “…an accommodation is considered any modification or adjustment to a job or work environment that enables a qualified person with a disability to apply for or perform a job. The term also encompasses alterations to ensure a qualified individual with a disability has rights and privileges in employment equal to those of employees without disabilities.”

Accommodations can be used to help employees overcome a broad range of conditions that might otherwise affect their performance in the workplace. For example, there are obvious areas such as physical disabilities, issues with mobility or auditory impairment. Accommodations can also be granted when employees have cognitive issues, emotional problems, and conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

While we continue to watch this important case, here are 3 key takeaways that demonstrate why the UPS pregnancy discrimination case is so important for employee relations, HR policy and the practices that guide workplace accommodations.

According to Young, UPS informed her that the company did not accommodate “off work” incidents and would not assign her “light duty.” Moreover, she was told that other employees that had incidents outside of work were similarly denied accommodation. Young argued that pregnancy was not an “incident,” but UPS went as far as classifying Young as “disabled” in their system and she was put on unpaid leave. The rub was that Young did not qualify for disability payments because her inability to lift packages over 20 pounds was due to an “off work” incident.

UPS argued that pregnant women were not singled out in their HR policies. All employees that were unable to perform their duties because of an “off work” incident did not receive accommodation. But look at the statistics. A recent Pew Report confirmed that not only are significantly more women working during pregnancy (66%) relative to the early 1960s, but 82% work up until the final month of pregnancy.

Given the important demographic trends of more women working during and through their pregnancies, one key HR takeaway is that human resources must be abreast of what is happening with the workforce and ensure that HR policy thoughtfully addresses the changing needs of employees. I recently blogged about the importance of an inclusive transgender HR policy which is another example of a relevant area that should be addressed in HR guidelines and reflect the ever-changing employee relations landscape.

HR Policy Should View Individual Guidelines in a Broader Context

UPS did have accommodation policies in place for workers that were unable to drive for causes that occurred “on the job,” as well as policies premised on the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) disability guidelines. These accommodations would allow workers to be reassigned to “light duty.” Pregnancy, an “off-work” incident, was not applicable under UPS human resource policy.

The court took issue with the fact that UPS had a substantial number of accommodations for other employees. Listing UPS accommodation policies in place for the ADA, DOT and on-the-job incidents, in the Opinion of the Court, Justice Breyer noted, “The Fourth Circuit did not consider the combined effects of these policies, nor did it consider the strength of UPS’ justifications for each when combined. That is, why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?”

Therefore, a key HR takeaway from the UPS case is that human resources must ensure that HR policies do not miss the forest for the trees. Individual guidelines should always be considered in the context of overall HR policies and employee relations within the company.

HR Policy Needs to Be Truly Inclusive

Sometimes companies have attitudes which are entrenched and HR policies that have not kept up with employee relations best practice. In the case of UPS, the company had a broad policy that covered disabilities which were classified as having occurred “on-the-job” or “off-work.” Moreover, the company did not believe it singled out women that were pregnant, but rather their “disability” simply fell into the “off-work” category.

So much has been written on how impactful an inclusive workplace can be to a company’s bottom line. It reverberates through the company culture, and in fact, organizations with inclusive workplaces are able to attract and hire the best people. So, in the case of UPS, the non-inclusive nature of the “off-work” criteria as applied to pregnant employees should have been an HR red flag.

The HR takeaway is that if a company policy appears, on the surface, to be non-inclusive, it probably is and it’s time to review it. Regardless of what an organization can legally do, the role of HR should be to humanize and define employee relations policy such that the outcome results in an inclusive environment for all employees.

HR practitioners know that thoughtful, smart HR policies will keep a company ahead of its peers by helping the organization retain the best people. Best practice employee relations takes mindfulness, which is why the UPS case is so important for HR and management teams everywhere.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller

Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, the employee relations case management solution that companies trust to help them track, investigate, and analyze employee issues the right way.