Politics & Policy

The Family Way

Peggy Young outide the Supreme Court, December 3, 2014.
The GOP should support working mothers — and mothers-to-be.

We are now in hurry-up-and-wait mode. We may not know until June what the U.S. Supreme Court decides about Peggy Young’s suit against United Parcel Service. And that decision is anyone’s guess, since court watchers report that the justices were guarded during oral argument.

Young was a UPS delivery driver in Maryland in 2006, when she learned she was pregnant. She sued UPS when the company refused to accommodate her request for light duty, after her doctor advised her to lift no more than 20 pounds; this was in spite of UPS’s making similar accommodations for other drivers, including those with drunk-driving violations. Instead, a pregnant Peggy Young was put on unpaid leave and denied health insurance.

Depending on how the Court interprets the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 — the federal law that safeguards the rights of pregnant women at work, and whose interpretation is at issue in Young’s case — there may be an opening for legislative action to clarify congressional intent. If the Court sides with UPS, Congress can always amend the federal code. However, if the Court sides with Young, there is still a place for Congress to explicitly codify the notion of reasonable accommodations, which can include permitting extra bathroom breaks, the right to carry a water bottle at work, or the use of a stool, if the pregnant woman would otherwise stand for long stretches at work.

Pennsylvania’s Senator Robert Casey Jr. introduced a bill to do just that in May 2013. Casey’s bill would legally require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, unless such accommodations “would impose an undue hardship on such an entity’s business operation.” Businesses would also not be allowed to put employees on leave if a reasonable accommodation can be arranged, as was possible in Peggy Young’s case. Known as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, this bill did not gain much publicity or momentum in the Congress that is about to end, and it never even made it out of committee.

Casey’s bill had 33 co-sponsors in the Senate and 142 in the House. These supporters were uniformly Democrats.

Where are congressional Republicans on this issue? At present, the answer seems to be nowhere. State and local legislators have thus taken up the cause in their stead.

Are Republicans shying away from Senator Casey’s bill because the business community opposes it? Or do they fear it will become a political cudgel, à la Lilly Ledbetter Act?

This is one area where Left and Right share common ground. Witness the amicus briefs filed for this case; Young’s supporters span the political spectrum from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Judicial Crisis Network, in addition to numerous pro-life organizations.

If there is something more specific that Republicans dislike in the bill, they might consider working with Senator Casey to revise it. Republicans and conservatives should, in fact, be leading on this issue. The GOP talks about giving people a hand up, rather than a handout. In practical terms, that means helping Americans who want to work, including pregnant women who are eager to work until they can’t (for a time), with the aid of some minor accommodations.

Surely Republicans aren’t interested in telling Americans they shouldn’t work. The Heritage Foundation reported that “6.9 million fewer Americans are working or searching for work” compared with December 2007. And the Census Bureau reported that “the number of Americans on welfare in the fourth quarter of 2011 totaled 108,592,000, adding up to 35.4 percent of Americans.” That’s an economic trajectory in need of  reversal.

Conservatives also celebrate life, and there can be no life without mothers and their babies. If companies can offer temporary, reasonable accommodations to some employees — as UPS did — they can also accommodate pregnant women. There will be employers who voluntarily recognize that such accommodations are a smart move, as UPS recently did. For any others, congressional Republicans should help open their eyes.

— Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. Department of State speechwriter, is now an independent writer in Washington, D.C.

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