Federal Court upholds employer’s ability to limit light work to workers’ compensation situations | Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP

In Young vs. United Parcel Service, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an employer’s light work program that excludes workers with pregnancy limitations may violate federal pregnancy discrimination laws. However, the court did not establish a hard and fast rule on exclusions from the light work program, giving employers the opportunity to demonstrate legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons for the exclusions. Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that an employer’s policy met that burden by limiting light duties to injury-on-duty situations.

In EEOC vs. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP, Walmart has limited light duties 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 work program. The Seventh Circuit upheld the district court’s denial of the summary judgment claims.

In its ruling, the Seventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s position that Young requires the employer to demonstrate why they excluded pregnant workers from the light work 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 worker compensation costs. Contrary to YoungWalmart has not made exceptions to allow employees to participate in the light work program for other reasons.

If followed by other federal appellate circuits, this case could significantly limit the impact of Young employers’ light work programs. If the employer limits the program to workers’ compensation situations and articulates the savings realized by quickly returning these employees to work, they may be able to exclude workers who request light work for medical reasons that would not be eligible for workers’ compensation.

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