Two recent complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seek to clarify the rights of pregnant women under a 2008 amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Both complaints were brought by pregnant women who said they were denied reasonable accommodations for pregnancy-related disabilities.
Since 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) has prohibited employers from treating pregnant women differently from similarly situated employees.
In 2008, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), expanding the definition of disability to cover pregnancy-related impairments, and the EEOC issued regulations codifying the act in March 2011.
In a complaint filed Thursday, Amy Crosby, a cleaner who makes $9.09 an hour at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, said she suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome. Her symptoms intensified in her 23rd week of pregnancy, which she said made it impossible for her to lift heavy bags of laundry and trash.
After Crosby submitted a note from a chiropractic neurologist attesting to pregnancy-related carpal tunnel syndrome, the hospital said the information needed to come from her obstetrician. Crosby's obstetrician said she could not diagnose her and recommended a neurologist for the pains in her arm.
Several supervisors refused her requests for work with limited lifting, and she was involuntarily placed on unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
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A separate complaint filed in January by the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that United Parcel Service Inc failed to accommodate driver Julie Desantis-Mayer when she was pregnant in the spring of 2012.
In August, the company offered her a light-duty position on the condition that it would not count toward seniority or benefits, an offer she described as "unlike, and worse than UPS's accommodation of other, non-pregnant employees."
A spokeswoman for UPS said the company does not discriminate against pregnant workers and that it adheres to all aspects of the law.
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The two cases highlight changes in the legal landscape since the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act was passed. In a 2008 case filed a few months before the law came into effect, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act did not require UPS to accommodate pregnant worker Peggy Young by offering her light duty, despite offering it to workers injured on the job.
"The ADAAA certainly broadens the definition of disability and means that a number of conditions caused by pregnancy might be treated as disabilities now, where they wouldn't have before," said Samuel Bagenstos, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and a prominent disability rights advocate.
Bagenstos and other lawyers are preparing a petition on Young's behalf at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cara Greene, a co-chair of Outten & Golden's Family Responsibilities and Disability Discrimination practice group in New York, said these cases highlight how the PDA and the ADAAA interact to require accommodations that the court denied to Young.
"Employers are missing the fact that just because a disability results from pregnancy, it doesn't mean they don't have to accommodate it," Greene said.
Legislation to codify these obligations has stalled. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, introduced last year in Congress, would require employers to make the same types of accommodations for pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions as they do for disabilities. It is due to be reintroduced this spring, according to a spokeswoman for the National Women's Law Center.
Galen Sherwin, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project, said that the two laws, the PDA and the ADAAA, should already be sufficient.
"If employers are now required to treat a broader category of disabled individuals with compassion by providing them the necessary job accommodations, but they are refusing those same type of job accommodations to pregnant women, that really flies in the face of Congress's intent in passing the PDA."