Earlier today, the Supreme Court heard a case that could change the way pregnant workers are protected under the law. The case concerned Peggy Young, a UPS driver who was told by her doctor to avoid heavy lifting during pregnancy. Young requested to be put on light duty—work the company reserved for the disabled and those injured on the job. Instead, the shipping giant put her on unpaid leave for the last six months of her pregnancy, leading her to lose her health care benefits, pension, and disability benefits. She is now suing her old employer for discrimination under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
Maternity policies are notoriously terrible in the United States. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), American workers are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a new child. But no federal law mandates any paid maternity leave, and the FMLA only applies to companies with more than 50 employees, where the employee has worked for at least a year. This means that the U.S. ranks among the worst in the world for its protection of new parents, alongside the likes of Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho. For the 40 percent of families who rely on women as their sole or primary breadwinners, the lack of paid leave means that pregnancy comes at a huge economic burden.
It’s not just that many American mothers (and fathers) often have to go back to work immediately after the birth of a child. It’s also that expectant mothers, like Peggy Young, aren’t guaranteed any accommodations before labor. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, a law that was passed in 1978, states that pregnant women “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.” This language was intended to protect pregnant women from discrimination, but instead has been used by employers to refuse them special accommodations.
America is virtually alone in the world in this attitude toward pregnant women. From Russia to China to Brazil, women around the world are entitled to time off before a baby’s arrival. Such policies have been proven to be healthier for women: According to a UC Berkeley study, women who worked until delivery day were four times more likely to have cesarean sections, which are not only expensive but can lead to complications and longer recovery times. According to National's Women's Law Center, 82 percent of first-time mothers worked into the last month of their pregnancy.
Pregnancy shouldn’t be a punishment, and the Supreme Court can start helping the U.S. catch up to the rest of the world.