Safety and OSHA News

Do offers of light duty have to be the same for pregnant and injured workers?

Action recently taken by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) changes when companies have to extend light duty work to pregnant workers. An important consideration: whether light duty is extended to injured workers. 

A new EEOC document, Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues, is the first comprehensive update of the commission’s policy on the subject since 1983.

The guidance states women affected by pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions must be treated the same as other people with similar ability or inability to work.

One clarification in particular from the new document: the circumstances when employers may have to provide light duty and/or reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers.

A Q&A provided by the EEOC explains:

If a pregnant employee needs light duty (temporary work that is less physically demanding than her normal duties), is the employer required to provide it?

Yes, if it provides light duty for employees who are not pregnant but who are similar in their ability or inability to work. An employer may not treat pregnant workers differently from employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work based on the cause of their limitations. For example, an employer may not deny light duty to a pregnant employee based on a policy that limits light duty to employees with on-the-job injuries.

Before this clarification by the EEOC, a company could have a light duty program for employees injured on the job, but it wouldn’t have to extend the same light duty position to a pregnant worker with similar work limitations such as a lifting requirement.

However, under the revised Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), companies would have to accommodate restrictions related to certain pregnancy-related conditions (anemia, gestational diabetes).

The timing of the EEOC’s action is, if nothing else, interesting. Just two weeks before the EEOC issued its new guidance, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving this exact issue (more about that shortly).

That’s not to say the EEOC created the document in two weeks only after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. This guidance document had been in the works for some time.

But, despite one commissioner’s objection to issuing the guidance when the high court will hear the case this fall, the EEOC released the new guidance anyway.

The Supreme Court case involves Peggy Young, a delivery driver for United Parcel Service, who had a lifting restriction due to pregnancy. She was denied light duty despite UPS’s policies that provided similar assignments to workers who were injured on the job.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in UPS’s favor because the company’s policy didn’t exclude only pregnancy – there were other temporarily disabled employees who needed accommodation but didn’t receive it.

All eyes will be on the nation’s nine top justices on this issue in the fall.

In the meantime, companies need to tread carefully when it comes to pregnant women and light duty.

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