In Young v. United Parcel Service, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an employer’s light duty program that excludes workers with pregnancy limitations can violate federal pregnancy discrimination laws. However, the court did not establish an absolute rule on light duty program exclusions, giving employers an opportunity to demonstrate legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons for the exclusions. Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found an employer’s policy met that burden in limiting light duty to workplace injury situations.
In EEOC v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., Walmart restricted light duty to employees injured on the job, excluding off-duty injuries or illnesses, as well as employees with pregnancy restrictions. These employees were offered unpaid leave. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued on behalf of a class of pregnant workers excluded from the light duty program. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the claims on summary judgment.
In its decision, the Seventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s position that Young requires the employer to demonstrate why it excluded pregnant workers from the light duty policy. Instead, the employer must articulate the business reasons for the policy, and the EEOC must show that it imposes a significant burden on pregnant workers that outweighs the employer’s reasoning behind the policy. In this case, Walmart demonstrated that the policy was established to control workers’ comp costs. Unlike Young, Walmart did not make exceptions to allow employees into the light duty program for other reasons.
If followed by other federal appellate circuits, this case could substantially limit the impact of Young on employers’ light duty programs. If the employer restricts the program to workers’ comp situations and articulates the savings achieved by quickly returning those employees to work, it may be able to exclude workers who request light duty based on medical reasons that would not qualify for workers’ comp.