A group of female pilots and flight attendants is accusing Frontier Airlines of discriminating against pregnant and nursing women, forcing them to take extended and largely unpaid leave while pregnant, and refusing to accommodate breastfeeding.
A pair of federal lawsuits filed Tuesday say that Frontier required pilots and flight attendants to stop flying weeks or months before their due dates, without providing paid maternity leave or alternative work arrangements. The suits follow similar complaints lodged with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016 and 2017.
Melissa Hodgkins, a flight attendant at Frontier, said those policies forced her to stop working at about 34 weeks with each of her two pregnancies, go without a paycheck for months, and burn through much of her limited time off before she'd even given birth.
"I was going to use up a lot of that precious stash of days before, you know, my children were even born," Hodgkins said in an interview with NPR.
The lawsuits also accuse Frontier of failing to provide time and space for breastfeeding mothers to pump breast milk and prohibiting pilots from pumping during flights.
One of the pilots, Shannon Kiedrowski, noted that pilots routinely use the restroom, especially during long flights, while a co-pilot remains at the controls. She argues that taking a brief break to pump wouldn't be much different.
"It's not as though we're going to be pumping during takeoff and landing," Kiedrowski said.
When she returned to work after the birth of her second child in 2013, Kiedrowski said, word got around that she was breastfeeding. She said she was summoned by her human resources department and asked what she describes as "inappropriate" questions.
"They questioned why I was pumping, why I felt the need to breastfeed my child, implying that, 'You're a pilot. And really, there's no place for you if you need to pump at work,' " Kiedrowski said.
Hodgkins, the flight attendant, said she decided to stop breastfeeding before returning to work after her children were born because of the lack of accommodations for pumping. She said she struggled with postpartum depression, which she attributes at least in part to feeling pressure to go back to work and discontinue breastfeeding before she was ready.
"It sort of feels like, here's your first shot as a mom and you're a failure," she said.
Hodgkins and Kiedrowski are among the Frontier workers named in the lawsuits against their employer. They accuse the Denver-based airline of violating the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Colorado state laws protecting the rights of pregnant and nursing women.
Galen Sherwin is a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the pilots and flight attendants. She said failing to account for pregnancy and breastfeeding "stacks the deck" against employees who give birth.
"Those employees will never able to succeed equally — at Frontier or in any industry — with the same success as those who don't get pregnant," Sherwin said. "Unless companies take their heads out of the sand and realize that women get pregnant, it's a part of women's lives, and we need to account for it."
Via email, a Frontier spokeswoman wrote that the airline "has strong policies in place in support of pregnant and lactating mothers and remains committed to treating all of its team members equally and fairly." She went on to explain that "Frontier offers a number of accommodations for pregnant and lactating pilots and flight attendants within the bounds of protecting public safety, which is always our top priority," and said that the airline denies the allegations in the lawsuits.
Becky Lutte, an aviation professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, said the lawsuit reflects a larger challenge facing the U.S. airline industry. Only about 5% of pilots industrywide are women, Lutte said, and "an even smaller number of those are in leadership positions."
"There is an issue in terms of needing to enhance and increase those numbers, and to work on efforts to recruit and retain women — and one of the ways to do that is to create a more inclusive workplace setting," Lutte said.
There's also a history of other airlines being pushed — through the legal process or union bargaining — to accommodate new mothers' needs. In 2017, Delta settled with a flight attendant who filed a discrimination complaint accusing that airline of failing to give her a place to pump breastmilk.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said flight attendants have faced a long history of sex discrimination, including weight restrictions imposed as recently as the early 1990s.
She said the industry has made strides in recent decades in the area of gender equality but hasn't done enough to accommodate the needs of new or expectant mothers whose jobs may require them to work 14-hour days or staff back-to-back flights.
"There hasn't been enough of a recognition that there are mothers who fly in these unique situations ... and there needs to be more focus on this in the industry," Nelson said.
According to union officials, specific policies on pregnancy and breastfeeding vary widely across airlines, but many require pregnant flight attendants to stop flying weeks or months before giving birth. Some offer disability or other benefits during that time.
Others offer extended unpaid leave, beyond the 12 weeks required under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. United Airlines, for example, allows up to a year of unpaid leave. Under pressure from workers, Frontier recently expanded its policy to allow up to six months of unpaid leave for women who give birth.
Policies to accommodate breastfeeding are relatively rare, though officials point to a provision negotiated in Alaska Airlines' contract that provides specific protections for lactating women to pump on airplanes.
Nelson said airlines could do more to address the needs of pregnant women and nursing moms by offering flexible schedules, additional family leave, or allowing part-time work.
"There's a lot of different ways this can be resolved if the airlines are ready to take it seriously and look at the realities of flying for flight attendants and pilots and make accommodations that make sense," Nelson said.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Female pilots and flight attendants at Frontier Airlines say when the time came to start their families, they faced discrimination at work. In a pair of lawsuits filed in federal court in Colorado today, the employees say the low-cost airline failed to accommodate the needs of pregnant women and nursing mothers. They argue it's part of a long history of sex discrimination in their industry. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: After she had her kids, Shannon Kiedrowski had to navigate something most airline pilots, frankly, don't have to worry about; breastfeeding on the job. Kiedrowski says her plan to continue nursing after she went back to work raised some eyebrows among her colleagues at Frontier Airlines and even got her called into HR.
SHANNON KIEDROWSKI: First of all, they questioned why I was pumping, why I felt the need to breastfeed my child, implying that, you're a pilot. And, really, there's no place for you if you need to pump at work. There's other options, such as formula.
MCCAMMON: Only about 5% of U.S. airline pilots are women, so there wasn't a lot of precedent to follow. Kiedrowski says she thinks the airline may have been concerned about the safety of pumping in flight, but she says it's common for pilots to take breaks to use the restroom while a co-pilot stays at the controls.
KIEDROWSKI: It's not as though we're going to be pumping during takeoff and landing.
MCCAMMON: Her kids are 8 and 6 now, but Kiedrowski is part of a group of Frontier pilots and flight attendants who are suing their employer, accusing the Denver-based airline of violating state and federal laws protecting the rights of pregnant and nursing women. They say the company failed to provide time and space to pump breast milk and forced pregnant women to stop flying months before their due dates, leaving many without paychecks. Flight attendant Melissa Hodgkins says she began dipping into her unpaid leave around 34 weeks into each of her two pregnancies.
MELISSA HODGKINS: I was going to use up a lot of that precious stash of days before, you know, my children were even born.
MCCAMMON: With the long hours and lack of space to pump, Hodgkins says she quit breastfeeding months sooner than she wanted to, a decision she calls heartbreaking.
HODGKINS: You know, it sort of feels like, here's your first shot as a mom. And you're a failure.
MCCAMMON: The lawsuits on behalf of the pilots and flight attendants at Frontier follow similar complaints submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In a statement, Frontier denied the allegations, saying the company offers, quote, "a number of accommodations for pregnant and lactating pilots and flight attendants within the bounds of protecting public safety." Sara Nelson is with the Association of Flight Attendants union. She says the lawsuits reflect a larger problem in the industry, where pregnant employees often lack paid maternity leave, and few have protections for breastfeeding. Nelson says there's a long history of sexism in aviation, going back to weight restrictions and other rules for flight attendants in the early years.
SARA NELSON: We couldn't be married or have children. And so these have all been issues that we have been fighting and beating back discrimination. And the issue of breast feeding and being a mother is more work that needs to be done.
MCCAMMON: Nelson notes that Frontier's most recent contract now allows up to six months of unpaid maternity leave, more than required by federal law. She says she hopes to see more flexible schedules, paid time off and other accommodations for moms who make their careers in the sky at Frontier and across the industry.
Sarah McCammon, NPR News.
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