The New Jersey Supreme Court has clarified the scope of the state's Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA).
In 2014 New Jersey's PWFA amended the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) by adding "pregnancy or breastfeeding" as a protected class under the LAD. Among other things, the PWFA prohibits employers from:
- Failing to provide a reasonable accommodation for pregnant or breastfeeding employees;
- Treating pregnant or breastfeeding employees unequally or unfavorably; or
- Penalizing pregnant or breastfeeding employees who request accommodation.
Light Duty Work:
Employers may need to reasonably accommodate an employee by providing light-duty work in certain circumstances, such as when an employee is temporarily unable to perform their regular job duties due to pregnancy. Light work duty generally means assigning a worker to alternate work that is physically or mentally less demanding than their regular job duties.
In Delanoy v. Township of Ocean, a pregnant police officer brought a discrimination claim against her employer based on differences in two standard operating procedures (SOPs) for "light duty" work (a maternity SOP for pregnant employees and a light duty SOP for non-pregnant employees).
The maternity SOP required a return from light duty work no more than 45 days after the officer's due date, whereas the light duty SOP relied on their doctor's projected return to work date. Additionally, under the light duty SOP, the police chief had discretion to waive the requirement to exhaust accumulated paid leave. The maternity SOP did not have an equivalent provision.
Delanoy filed a lawsuit under the PWFA, alleging unfavorable treatment because she was required to use her leave time in connection with her light-duty work, whereas her male colleagues were not required to do so.
On March 9, 2021, New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled that although the purpose of both SOPs was to accommodate light duty work, the leave provisions under the maternity SOP were stricter than those of the light duty SOP, which violated the PWFA's prohibition on unfavorable treatment of pregnant employees.
The Court found that a pregnant employee's temporary inability to perform an essential function of their job will not automatically establish undue hardship, and the employer has the burden of establishing such hardship.
New Jersey employers should review their policies and practices to ensure compliance with the PWFA's equal treatment and reasonable accommodation requirements. Please contact your dedicated service professional with any questions.