Accommodating Pregnant Employees: How Florida Businesses Can Get Into Trouble for Treating Employees Facing “Similar” Medical Restrictions Differently
Federal law prohibits Florida employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their pregnancy. This means that an employer must treat a pregnant employee the same as other persons “not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” In other words, when crafting employment policies, you cannot treat pregnant workers less favorably than non-pregnant workers who may have similar limitations in their ability to perform certain job functions.
11th Circuit Allows EMT to Proceed with Lawsuit
The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has appellate jurisdiction over Florida, recently elaborated on this principle. The case before the court, Durham v. Rural/Metro Corporation, originated in Alabama. The plaintiff works as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for the defendant employer. The defendant normally its EMTs to lift 100 pounds or more on a regular basis. But after the plaintiff learned she was pregnant in 2015, her doctor said she could not lift more than 50 pounds for the duration of her pregnancy.
The plaintiff requested an accommodation for her pregnancy-related limitations in the form of light duty, such as working dispatch. The defendant did, in fact, have a light-duty policy. But the defendant’s HR department said the plaintiff was not eligible for this policy. Instead, it suggested she take unpaid personal leave instead. The plaintiff declined, as she could not afford to lose her income. She attempted to continue working as an EMT, but the defendant refused to schedule her for any more shifts, as she could not provide a medical release.
Eventually, the plaintiff filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC, which led to her lawsuit. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant “had offered accommodations under its Light-duty Policy to four employees with lifting restrictions imposed as a result of having been injured on the job.” She believed she was entitled to a similar accommodation under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).
A federal judge in Alabama rejected this argument and granted summary judgment to the defendant. The judge concluded that the plaintiff and the other employees were not “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The plaintiff then appealed the judge’s ruling to the 11th Circuit.
The appeals court sided with the plaintiff, holding the trial judge applied an incorrect legal standard. The 11th Circuit pointed to a 2015 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. In that case, a pregnant employee was also subject to lifting restrictions by her doctors. Her employer similarly declined to reassign her because she “did not satisfy” the company’s requirements for her current position–i.e. , she could not lift up to 70 pounds–and insisted she take an unpaid leave of absence instead. But the employer also permitted other employees subject to lifting restrictions for non-pregnancy reasons to obtain temporary reassignment. Under these facts, the Supreme Court said there was a “genuine dispute” as to whether the employer treated the pregnant employee less favorably.
The 11th Circuit said the same reasoning applied to the pregnant EMT’s case. At the very least, the employee made a “prima facie” case for pregnancy discrimination. The employer may still be able to show it had “legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons” for refusing the employee’s request for light-work reassignment, but that would be a matter for the trial judge to sort out going forward.
Do Your Policies Inadvertently Discriminate Against Pregnant Workers?
Florida employers need to be careful when drafting any policies related to restricted or light-duty accommodation. Even if you do not intend to discriminate against pregnant employees with such policies, you may still find yourself facing such claims based on how you apply such policies. If you need additional legal advice or guidance on this subject, consult with a qualified Florida employment law attorney today.