Eryon Luke, a certified nursing assistant from Louisiana, was fired from her job in 2012 after becoming pregnant with twins. Today, her legal case may determine how other pregnant and breastfeeding women are treated in the workplace.
When she became pregnant, Eryon wanted to continue working and, like most people, needed her job. Her doctor told the rehab facility where she worked that Eryon could continue doing her job, so long as she didn't lift more than 30 pounds. But Eryon's employer refused to provide minor accommodations that would allow her to work without engaging in heavy lifting. Her employer refused to even discuss it. Eryon believes it wouldn't have been hard for the rehab facility to either provide assistance with lifting or transfer her temporarily to another position - she would have been happy with either. Eryon's direct supervisor agreed an accommodation was possible and initially allowed her to continue doing her regular job without any unassisted heavy lifting. But two days later, the human resources supervisor intervened and sent Eryon home. With two babies on the way, Eryon tried to persuade her employer to allow her to continue working with a modest accommodation, but they refused and ultimately terminated her twenty-eight days before her babies were born.
Eryon, pushed out of the workplace over a simple accommodation, found a lawyer to represent her. It looked like she had a strong case under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, a nationwide law that requires employers to treat women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions (like breastfeeding) as well as they treat other employees who have a similar ability to work. Although Eryon's employer denied her accommodation request, it had both a policy and practice of providing accommodations to other employees, including assistance with lifting. In fact, the employee handbook instructed all nurses to seek assistance when lifting heavy loads. Eryon's legal case was strengthened in late 2015 when the United States Supreme Court confirmed that employers ordinarily must accommodate pregnant women when they accommodate other categories of employees.
Despite the strong wind at her back, the judge overseeing Eryon's case threw it out of court without giving her an opportunity to convince a jury that her former employer engaged in unlawful pregnancy discrimination. But although he ruled that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act did not require Eryon's employer to accommodate her, the judge also shared his opinion that "No pregnant woman should, in 2016, be fired for being unable to lift more than 30 pounds." Eryon won the judge's sympathies, but apparently he believed his hands were tied under the law. Eryon's lawyers disagreed and appealed the judge's decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Eryon is not alone in her fight. Last week, a group of 26 legal organizations from Louisiana and around the country - led by the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, A Better Balance, and the Center for WorkLife Law - filed a legal brief in support of Eryon's appeal. These organizations assert that the judge misunderstood the legal standard, denying Eryon's claim outright, when he should have allowed her to present her case to a jury. The legal brief also stresses the importance of an employer's legal obligation to have a two-way conversation with pregnant employees who request accommodations to find a solution that works for everyone. Unpaid leave and termination are not "solutions."
This case is important to Eryon Luke, but it is also important to millions of other women who may someday need accommodations at work for pregnancy or breastfeeding. Because there are currently only a couple rulings from appellate courts on the legal issues presented by Eryon's case, the outcome of her lawsuit will be used to determine the fate of cases brought by other women in the future. And employers will look to the Fifth Circuit's ruling as a guide for how they are required to treat their own pregnant and breastfeeding employees. The Fifth Circuit will not rule on the case for months, but its ruling should be guided by the underlying purpose of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act - to ensure that employers don't force pregnant women off the job, so that pregnant women and new mothers have the ability to participate equally in the workforce.
The lower-court judge was absolutely right that no pregnant woman should be denied the opportunity to work because she cannot lift more than 30 pounds. The Fifth Circuit should find that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act makes such denials illegal in cases like Eryon's.
Information about pregnant women's legal rights in the workplace - for employees, their lawyers, and their doctors - can be found at www.pregnantatwork.org.