Employers Seek Clarity on Reproductive Healthcare Benefits Litigation Following EEOC Commissioner Filing
Following the US Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, many employers extended travel benefits to women residing in states where abortion or reproductive health procedures may now be unlawful. Recently, US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Commissioner Andrea Lucas filed a Commissioner’s Charge against at least three companies alleging that doing so violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Although these charges are not public, it’s believed they mirror a letter that Sharon Fast Gustafson, the former EEOC General Counsel, recently sent en masse to employers around the country also alleging such travel programs violate federal anti-discrimination laws. The EEOC has since issued a statement that Gustafson’s views are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the EEOC.
When Title VII was amended in 1978 by the Pregnancy Act amendments, language was added requiring pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions be treated equally with other medical conductions under an employer’s “fringe benefit programs.” Lucas asserts that providing travel benefits for those seeking abortions provides preferential treatment to women, thus constituting gender discrimination. Her contention is also that travel benefits further implicate religious discrimination by favoring those who terminate pregnancies over those who, for religious reasons, carry a child to term. Her final contention is that the provision of travel benefits violates the ADA, which she claims requires parity of benefits for those with physical disabilities.
Employers are now asking whether Lucas’ and Gustafson’s position may be the beginning of litigation by the EEOC or private plaintiffs and whether they can take measures to address the legal arguments being raised.
First, it is doubtful the EEOC will be suing. While Title VII and the ADA authorize a single commissioner to file a Commissioner’s Charge, that Charge will be investigated like any other Charge of Discrimination. If cause is found, EEOC procedure requires in cases garnering public attention (which this most certainly is) that litigation may only be commenced if a majority of the Commissioners (minus the Commissioner who brought the Charge) vote in favor of doing so. In the absence of a quorum, then only the General Counsel of the EEOC may initiate suit. At this time, Lucas would not appear to have such votes.
Second, employers can and should draft around these contentions to prepare for private suits. Specifically, such travel benefits should cover not only abortion and/or reproductive health, but also all covered services or procedures that are unavailable within a covered individual’s state of residence or area, regardless of the individual’s gender, pregnancy or childbirth status, or disability status. This would make the benefits “available” to everyone.
Finally, there is a suggestion that, even with such drafting, this travel benefit will still be utilized primarily by non-Christian women, thus supporting a disparate impact claim based on religious discrimination. This is an overreach. Title VII claims require an adverse employment action such as an employee who requests but is denied a travel benefit due to her religion; here, that would be a null set.