The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in EEOC v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., No 21-1690 (7th Cir. Aug. 16, 2022) recently recognized that an employer has the right to exclude pregnant workers from its light duty work program created for employees injured on the job. While the case addressed only the exclusion of pregnant workers under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the decision may also have implications under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Walmart’s light duty program provided that employees with lifting restrictions caused by a work injury could be offered temporary light duty work while they healed. However, Walmart did not extend its light duty to workers injured off the job or to pregnant workers. Instead, it required pregnant workers with lifting or other physical restrictions to take a medical leave of absence. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sue Walmart over the policy on behalf of a class of workers who were denied light duty positions during their pregnancy, and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin granted summary judgment for the employer.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the lower court and affirmed the grant of summary judgment. The panel of three judges determined that Walmart provided a legitimate reason for only offering light duty to workers injured on the job. The Court noted that “offering temporary light duty to workers injured on the job pursuant to a state worker’s compensation law is a ‘legitimate nondiscriminatory’ justification for denying accommodations … to everyone else, such as individuals not injured on the job, including pregnant women.” Because the company acted pursuant to a neutral worker’s compensation program that benefited employees injured on the job while limiting its labor costs and exposure to worker’s comp claims, the policy did not violate the PDA or Title VII.
Notwithstanding its ruling, the Seventh Circuit noted that employers that offer light duty to employees with job-related injuries may violate the PDA when they also provide light duty work to other groups of workers, but not to pregnant employees. For example, if an employer implements a light duty program in which it offers light duty to employees with temporary restrictions from work-related and non-work-related injuries, but specifically excludes pregnant workers from its policy, such a policy would violate the law. There was no evidence in the record, however, that Walmart offered light duty to workers whose injuries did not occur on the job.
While the case did not expressly address the ADA, it should be noted an employer has an obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation to a worker with a disability. In this regard, an employer must apply its policy of creating a light duty position for an employee when s/he is occupationally injured on a non-discriminatory basis. While the Seventh Circuit’s decision only addressed a claim of pregnancy discrimination, the decision would appear to allow employers to restrict its light duty policy to employees with occupational injuries and exclude employees with non-work-related restrictions (including workers with disabilities). This is especially so where the company’s light duty work program does not have a set number of positions, but rather positions are created, as necessary, for each worker who sustains an occupational injury.
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