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Accommodating employees who are pregnant

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Two major court rulings have come up recently regarding companies and pregnant employees. The first case — Young v. UPS, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2015 — involved the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, or PDA. The PDA, as with the Americans with Disabilities Act, applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

The Iowa Supreme Court decided the second case, McQuistion v. City of Clinton in December 2015, and it concerns the Iowa Civil Rights Act. The ICRA applies to all employers, including the state and local governments.

These cases established important standards for employers to follow when accommodating pregnant employees. In Young v. UPS, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that pregnant employees can make a valid claim for discrimination by showing their employer denied a request for an accommodation when the employer has accommodated other employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

In McQuistion, the Iowa Supreme Court distinguished the ICRA from the PDA, noting that they are not identical and that under the PDA pregnant employees must show they have a pregnancy related disability to seek accommodations.

Failing to accommodate pregnant employees can be costly. For example, a pregnant employee of a Chipotle Mexican Grill in the District of Columbia recently won a $550,000 jury verdict in August 2016.

The suit said that after she informed her manager of her pregnancy, he began restricting her access to water and bathroom breaks. After the manager ignored the plaintiff’s repeated requests to leave work early for a doctor’s appointment, she left for the appointment anyway and was fired.

So how does an employer accommodate a pregnant employee or one with a pregnancy-related disability? The best way for an employer to handle a request for accommodation from a pregnant worker is the same way it handles any disability request under the ADA — engage in the interactive process with the employee.

An employer should ask, “What would I do if the employee had a back injury or needed chemotherapy treatments?”

What accommodations are reasonable for a pregnant worker? According to the U.S. Department of Labor:

l Strategies to meet physical demands, such as lifting aids, temporary reassignment of duties, reserved parking, stools, ergonomic chairs, reassignment to less physically demanding jobs and alternate workstations.

l Schedule shifts, such as flexible arrival time; periodic rest, food, water and bathroom breaks; telecommuting; light-duty work; a less physically demanding shift; limited overtime; and flexible use of leave.

l Policy modifications, such as exceptions to a dress code as well as relaxed “no food or drink” and “no-sitting” policies.

Employers should not accept generic requests such as “the patient can’t be on her feet or lift heavy objects.” Get specific guidance about accommodations from the employee and her doctor.

Remember that the interactive process is ongoing. Once the accommodation is implemented, employers continuously should monitor the situation and make adjustments as needed, involving both the employee and her physician.

Finally, while the employer has a duty to engage in the interactive process, it still has the right to choose which accommodation best meets its organization’s needs or poses an undue burden.

l Wilford H. Stone is an attorney with Lynch Dallas in Cedar Rapids.

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