It is always good practice to review your written job descriptions to ensure that they accurately set forth the requirements, qualifications, and expectations of your workforce, and to update those descriptions if they are out of date or lacking. Written job descriptions are an important piece of evidence in establishing the essential functions of a given position. Of course, updating a job description does not serve as a shield from liability when a job requirement is being added as an act of unlawful discrimination against an employee. As one Michigan company is about to find out: dealing with the EEOC is no easy lift.
On March 27, 2018, the EEOC filed suit against Simplicity Ground Services, LLC, a Michigan company, based on allegations of pregnancy discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. According to the EEOC’s Complaint, an employee named Raylynn Bishop was employed as a “Ramp Agent” since July of 2014. In January of 2015, she received a promotion to a “Tow Team” agent. Her primary duties as a Tow Team agent involved operating a vehicle, and her written job description did not contain a specific lifting requirement.
According to the Complaint, Ms. Bishop submitted a physician’s note in July of 2015, indicating that she was restricted from lifting more than twenty (20) pounds on account of her pregnancy. Simplicity did not accommodate this lifting restriction in the same manner in which it accommodated other non-pregnant employees with similar work restrictions. Instead, Simplicity allegedly informed her that she would not be able to work unless the lifting restriction was removed, and it also attempted to make her sign an amended job description which added a lifting requirement of up to seventy (70) pounds which she was unable to fulfill. Ms. Bishop refused to sign the amended job description, and Simplicity responded by forcing Ms. Bishop into unpaid leave for the duration of her pregnancy.
The EEOC has made no secret of its focus on pregnancy discrimination in recent years. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions is sex discrimination, prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VII as amended, employers are required to treat pregnant employees in the same manner as other employees similar in their ability or inability to work. According to the EEOC’s allegations, Simplicity failed in this regard by refusing to provide the same accommodations it provides to non-pregnant employees with similar lifting restrictions. The EEOC seeks to enjoin Simplicity’s unlawfully discriminatory practices, damages for Ms. Bishop and other company employees similarly affected, and punitive damages.
Though this litigation is in only the earliest of stages, it should serve as a cautionary tale that imposing new job requirements on employees who are the process of seeking the accommodations to which they are legally entitled can constitute unlawful discrimination, whether or not it is done in conjunction with an update to a written job description. Unlawful discrimination is just that, whether or not it’s written down on paper. This Michigan company appears to have failed to understand that lesson, and now it must bear the weight of a federal lawsuit.