Was supervisor’s refusal to temporarily modify duties unlawful?


Ingrid, a machine operator at a bottling company, was told by her doctor that, at this stage of her pregnancy, she should refrain from lifting more than 20 pounds. As part of her job, she is required to carry certain materials weighing more than 20 pounds to and from her machine several times each day. She asked her supervisor if she could be temporarily relieved of this function, but he refused, stating that he couldn’t reassign her job duties but could transfer her temporarily to another lower-paying position for the duration of the lifting restriction. Ingrid reluctantly accepted the transfer, but she also filed an EEOC charge in which she claimed that in the previous six months, her employer had reassigned the lifting duties of three other machine operators, including a man who injured his arm in an automobile accident and a woman who had undergone surgery to treat a hernia. Was her supervisor wrong to deny her request of a temporary reprieve of lifting duties?


Yes. Under these circumstances, an EEOC investigator would determine that the employer subjected Ingrid to discrimination based on her sex (i.e., pregnancy) in violation of Title VII. Employers can violate Title VII by making assumptions about the commitment of pregnant workers or their ability to perform certain physical tasks. Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination includes a prohibition against employment decisions based on pregnancy, even where an employer does not discriminate against women generally. As with other sex-based stereotypes, employers are prohibited from basing an adverse employment decision on stereotypical assumptions about the effect of pregnancy on an employee’s performance, regardless of whether the employer is acting out of hostility or a belief that it is acting in the employee’s best interest.

Employers also should keep in mind that discrimination against a caregiver could be an issue under these circumstances and that while the federal EEO laws do not prohibit discrimination against caregivers per se, the EEOC has described circumstances where discrimination against caregivers might constitute unlawful disparate treatment under Title VII. Employers may be liable if workers with caregiving responsibilities are subjected to offensive comments or other harassment because of sex (including pregnancy) or another protected characteristic, and the conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment. The same legal standards that apply to other forms of harassment prohibited by the EEO statutes also apply to unlawful harassment directed at caregivers or pregnant workers.

Source: EEOC Guidance: “Unlawful Disparate Treatment of Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities,” reported in the CCH Employment Practices Guide.

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