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State Supreme Court affirms it: Pregnancy isn’t a disability

Post by Adam Lynn / The News Tribune on Nov. 29, 2007 at 2:45 pm with No Comments »
November 29, 2007 2:45 pm

The state Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday upholding previous law on pregnancy and hiring decisions.

The case is out of Cowlitz County. Here’s a link to the majority decision. And here’s a link to the concurring opinion.

The Northwest Women’s Law Center issued the following news release about the decision:

The Washington State Supreme Court today confirmed that an employer’s refusal to employ a pregnant woman is a form of unlawful sex discrimination, ruling that pregnancy is not a disability subject to a reasonable accommodation analysis. The decision adopts the position urged by the Northwest Women’s Law Center and the ACLU of Washington, who filed an amicus brief in the case Hegwine v. Longview Fibre Company, Inc. supporting Stacy Hegwine.

"Changing existing law to allow treating pregnancy as a disability would have encouraged employers to make employment decisions based on stereotypes," said Law Center Executive Director Lisa M. Stone. "The Court’s ruling is instead a welcome affirmation that stereotypes about what kinds of work women can and cannot do belong in the past. The Court also correctly found that even asking a job applicant whether she is pregnant when there is no job-related reason doing so is a form of sex discrimination."

Ms. Hegwine had been offered employment as an order checker at Longview Fibre Company, but was fired after the company learned that she was pregnant and claimed that she could not perform the job because it required lifting weight greater than her doctor had released her to lift, and that it need not make exceptions to the lifting requirement to accommodate the temporary pregnancy-related limitations.

Longview Fibre argued that its treatment of Ms. Hegwine’s pregnancy restrictions should be analyzed under disability discrimination principles. Ms. Hegwine, the Northwest Women’s Law Center and the ACLU argued that an employer’s treatment of employees with pregnancy-related medical conditions should be analyzed under sex discrimination principles.

The Washington Supreme Court agreed, stating that "pregnancy-related employment discrimination claims are matters of sex discrimination." Employers may not treat pregnancy as a disability to avoid providing accommodations for any temporary inability to work caused by pregnancy or a pregnancy-related condition. Further, the Court confirmed that inquiring as to a prospective employee’s pregnancy status constitutes unlawful sex discrimination, unless the inquiry is based on a valid bona fide occupational qualification. In this case, the Court agreed that Ms. Hegwine had proved sex discrimination. Longview Fibre had refused to hire her based solely on her pregnancy and had offered no evidence that excluding pregnant women was essential to the position, said the Court.

An employer’s obligation to accommodate pregnant women is absolute, not subject to an analysis of whether such accommodation would be required under disability discrimination law. And employers cannot ask about pregnancy unless they can show that substantially all pregnant women are incapable of performing the job.

Today’s decision ensures an important protection for women in the workplace because it ensures equal opportunity for women and men in the workplace, in light of the fact that only women experience pregnancy and the sometimes related conditions that would require on the job accommodation or temporary leaves of absence.

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