By Frank Harty
Iowa employers constantly wrestle with how to treat pregnant employees. Some desire to accord special treatment to pregnant employees – but do so at the risk of drawing reverse discrimination claims. Other employers use a “status blind” approach – attempting to strictly comply with Iowa law by treating pregnant employees no better and no worse than their non-pregnant co-workers. Even this approach draws litigation where plaintiffs claim that pregnant employees must be given a “most favored nation” treatment.
On Christmas Eve, the Iowa Supreme Court weighed in, turning to Federal law for guidance and adopting a common sense, ad hoc approach to the issue. McQuistion v. City of Clinton, No. 14-0413 (Iowa December 24, 2015). Karen McQuistion is a Clinton fire fighter who demanded “light duty” when she became pregnant. Of note is the fact that McQuistion did not have a problem pregnancy – she simply wanted to be relieved of the more arduous tasks of her job while she was pregnant. McQuistion noted that her co-workers who were injured on the job were given “light duty” as part of the city’s attempt to reduce its workers' compensation costs; she wanted the same. The city met with McQuistion and attempted to accommodate her demands, but ultimately determined that “light duty” was only available to those employees who were injured on the job. Employees who suffered disabling injuries off the job were treated in accordance with the applicable law, but were not given the special benefit of “light duty” at full pay.
For several years the Iowa Civil Rights Commission has taken the position that if any disabled employee is given light duty, an employee disabled by pregnancy must be treated likewise. The Commission has rejected arguments that it has misconstrued the Iowa Civil Rights Act. The McQuistion decision should cause the Iowa Civil Rights Commission to reconsider its position.
In the McQuistion decision, the Iowa Supreme Court relied heavily upon the analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 575 U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 1338 (2015) and held that the Iowa Civil Rights Act only requires that pregnant employees be treated the “same” as “other persons” in “similarly situated” jobs with a similar inability to work. The Court held that the Iowa Civil Rights Act did not require that pregnant employees needed to be treated the same as “any” other co-workers. Thus, relying upon the analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Iowa Supreme Court rejected the notion that the Iowa Civil Rights Act gives pregnant employees a “most favored nation status.” The case was sent back to the trial court to determine if there was any discriminatory intent attached to the denial of McQuistion’s request for special treatment.
It is important for Iowa employers to ensure that any light duty policy is administered in an even-handed manner. It is important to ensure that the policy is not a veiled attempt to discriminate against pregnant employees. Most policies that offer light duty only to employees injured on the job and thus, eligible for Iowa’s lucrative worker’s compensation benefits, should pass muster under the McQuistion analysis.
The McQuistion case is also important for Iowa employers because it indicates the Iowa Supreme Court’s desire to make Iowa and federal law uniform when appropriate and to apply non-discrimination statutes in a common sense manner.