EEOC Issues New Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination

July 23, 2014

By: Mark A. Moldenhauer

On July 14, 2014, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") issued its Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues.  The purpose of the Enforcement Guidance is to explain the EEOC’s current interpretations of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 ("PDA") and the interplay between the PDA and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").  This interplay is important because although pregnancy by itself is not a disability under the ADA, it is often accompanied by one or more medical impairments which would entitle an employee to the ADA’s protections. Perhaps the most significant take-away from the new Enforcement Guidance concerns those situations when the PDA and ADA do not overlap, i.e., when pregnant employees do not have ADA-covered disabilities.  The EEOC’s interpretations make clear that it views pregnancy as a preferred status for enforcement and litigation purposes, such that pregnancy alone can give rise to certain job protections that would not be afforded to comparable non-pregnant co-workers. As an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the PDA prohibits discrimination on the basis of an applicant's or employee’s pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.  It requires that women affected by pregnancy be treated the same as non-pregnant employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.”  Courts generally interpret this to mean that employers need not adjust their normal policies and practices to accommodate work restrictions caused solely by pregnancy.  This is unlike under the ADA, which affirmatively requires that employers reasonably accommodate otherwise qualified individuals who are unable to perform the essential functions of their jobs due to disabilities. Despite earlier court decisions, the EEOC Enforcement Guidance instructs that employers must generally honor work restrictions for pregnant employees, even if no ADA-covered condition exists to require a workplace accommodation.  Similarly, if an employer provides light duty assignments to employees who experience on-the-job injuries (as many employers do to lower workers’ compensation costs), it is the EEOC’s position that pregnant employees must be given the light duty option.  This is the EEOC's view even if light duty work is not available to similarly situated employees whose job restrictions result from an injury suffered outside of the workplace. The EEOC issued its Enforcement Guidance less than two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the case of Young v. UPS, Inc.  The Fourth Circuit held in Young that the PDA does not require pregnancy-related accommodations or light duty assignments since this would effectively grant non-disabled pregnant employees preferential treatment relative to co-workers who are not otherwise covered by the ADA or an employer’s light duty policy (such as an individual who suffered a temporary, off-the-job injury) – a result which was never intended by Congress.  Critics view the Enforcement Guidance as an attempt by the EEOC to politicize a question of judicial interpretation in advance of the Supreme Court ruling. The Enforcement Guidance also describes the EEOC’s position on other pregnancy-related issues affecting the workplace, which will be discussed in a future blog article.  In the meantime, as we noted in our January 2, 2013, blog post, the issue of accommodating pregnancy-related limitations will continue to be one of the EEOC’s top enforcement priorities.  Accordingly, prudent employers should evaluate their internal policies and practices for compliance with current legal standards, and ensure that those policies and practices are being applied in a consistent and non-discriminatory manner. The EEOC has also issued a Questions & Answers to summarize its new Enforcement Guidance, as well as a Fact Sheet for Small Businesses.