SAD Times

Labor Issues

Joe breaks his leg: light duty. Frank has heart surgery: light duty. Mary is pregnant: No light duty? Think again.

As an increasing number of women enter fields previously dominated by men, employers are more likely to be faced with the issue of what to do with workers who must cut back on physical activity because they're pregnant.

From a purely legal standpoint, the answer is simple. "Pregnancy is generally not considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act," says James Wimberly, an employment attorney with Atlanta law firm Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Nelson & Schneider PC. "As a general proposition, an employer does not have to grant light duty."

But a look at real life and actual case law muddies the waters. Although pregnancy is not considered a disability, discriminating against an employee because she's pregnant violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, under the category of sex discrimination. "To the extent an employer grants light duty for other temporary disabilities, the employer has the same obligation to grant light duty for pregnancy matters," says Wimberly. In other words, if you offer light duty to the weekend jock who hurts his knee playing softball, you must make the same accommodation when a mother-to-be's doctor restricts her physical activity.

The best approach is to establish a light-duty policy that is nondiscriminatory and clearly states who is eligible and what you are willing and able to do for workers who are temporarily unable to perform all the requirements of their jobs. Beyond that, Wimberly says, "in spite of some potential legal complications [that can arise] by not extending [equal] treatment to [all], I think a majority of employers can and do grant light duty to pregnant women when it's medically necessary, even though the law doesn't mandate it."

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This article was originally published in the November 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: SAD Times.

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